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One month before the end of the American Civil War, the United States Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, also known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, on March 3, 1865. According to VCU Libraries, the Freedmen’s Bureau was organized under the War Department and Major General Oliver Otis Howard, a Union general during the war, was appointed as commissioner in May. Howard would end up being the only commissioner of the Bureau.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture writes that the Freedmen’s Bureau was in charge of helping formerly enslaved people get their bearings after the Civil War. This assistance ranged from providing food and clothing to promoting a system of labor contracts and helping formerly enslaved people reunite with their families, writes the National Archives. And this was no small task. The Bureau was accountable to more than 4 million formerly enslaved Black people in addition to Southern white refugees. But despite these responsibilities, the Freedmen’s Bureau was poorly funded. The Bureau received $7 million in 1866, approximately 1% of the $536 million in federal spending that year.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was only supposed to operate for one year, but in 1866, Congress passed new legislation to extend the Bureau’s lifespan in addition to increasing its powers. Although President Andrew Johnson vetoed this legislation, the bill was “passed over Johnson’s veto on July 16, 1866.” At its height, the Bureau was present in major cities in 15 states.

Schools also ended up becoming a target, Hilary Green writes in “Education Reconstruction.” Because “education had previously been used as a means of reinforcing Black Richmonders’ lack of freedom and citizenship,” those who attended and taught at Freedmen’s Schools were harassed for creating the possibility of education for Black Americans. In places like Virginia, “Male teachers endured whippings. Female teachers and students often found themselves pelted by rock throwing white youth while walking the city streets.”

When General Howard first proposed the Freedmen’s Bureau courts, he suggested creating a court to deal with labor cases involving less than $200 that would be staffed by a Bureau agent, a representative for Black people, and a representative for the white planters. According to Judicature, Howard predicted that the representative for Black people would be “an intelligent white man who has always been their friend.” In practice, Howard instead issued an order that allowed the Freedmen’s Bureau to “assume judicial control from the states” in the event that courts continued to refuse Black people the right to give testimony.

The Freedmen’s Bureau courts closed most of their own courts after the first few years of Reconstruction, according to “Litigating Across the Color Line,” as states passed legislation granting Black people “legal equality and the ability to testify.” The Bureau would also provide lawyers to freedpeople who didn’t have representation. Unfortunately, these courts offered little actual recourse to Black Americans. Many white people threatened Black people with death if they were found to have reported assault or injustice to a Bureau agent, and for this reason, Black people showed “an utter unwillingness to return to the place they have left.” And few were willing to testify as witnesses, having also been threatened.

According to the National Archives, the Bureau was also responsible for issuing marriage certificates to formerly enslaved people, since “slave marriages” were not considered to have “legal standing.”

As the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the Freedmen’s Bureau was in charge of redistributing abandoned land to “loyal refugees and freedmen.” And according to “Constraint of Race” by Linda Faye Williams, this is “where the Bureau failed most tragically.” The Bureau was given the power to lease abandoned properties and after three years, whoever was leasing the land could purchase it from the Bureau. And by 1865, the Bureau had over 850,000 acres of abandoned and confiscated land to redistribute.

Although the Freedmen’s Bureau leased and allowed the settlement of almost 500,000 acres by mid-1865, President Johnson and his administration fought back against this redistribution, and the Freedmen’s Bureau was subsequently forced to undo all the resettlement that had occurred. In “A History of the Freedmen’s Bureau,” Bentley writes that in Johnson’s revision of the Bureau’s order, confiscated property only applied to “property already sold under a court decree.” General Howard was also required to restore lands to pardoned rebels. This effectively “not only cut off prospects for Black landownership but also returned to the planters the land of the few freedmen who had cobbled together the means to plant crops on their leased lands in 1865,” Williams writes.

At the end of the day, the Freedmen’s Bureau retained around 75,000 acres to lease to Black people. And those who refused to work for the planters, to whom control of the land had reverted back to, were evicted.

Overall, the lack of enforcement and lack of funding, sometimes but not always related, affected the efficacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau. At its peak, it employed no more than 900 people, “with some 300 of these serving as clerks rather than agents,” and during its 7-year lifetime, less than 2,500 people total were Freedmen’s Bureau agents.

The effectiveness of the Bureau also varied depending on the state. Mary Farmer-Kaiser notes in “Freedwomen and the Freedmen’s Bureau” that in Mississippi, there were only 12 agents in 1866, and in Alabama, there were no more than 20 throughout the Bureau’s life. In “Poor But Proud,” Wayne Flynt writes that in the state of Alabama, the Freedmen’s Bureau “helped far more of Alabama’s poor whites than Blacks.” This was largely because General Howard “interpreted ‘refugees’ broadly to include virtually any indigent whites,” since the Freedmen’s Bureau was designed to assist “destitute freedmen and refugees.”

By 1867, “many local and federal Bureau officers [also] grew increasingly intolerant of freedpeople’s needs and repeatedly denied them assistance,” according to “Sick from Freedom” by Jim Downs. W. E. B. Du Bois would later write that the successes of the Freedmen’s Bureau “were the result of hard work, supplemented by the aid of philanthropists and the eager striving of Black men. Its failures were the result of bad local agents, the inherent difficulties of the work, and national neglect.”

All in all, although the Freedmen’s Bureau lasted less than a decade, it was “a social relief program of unprecedented scope.” And while the Bureau oversaw some successes, like the establishment of over 1,000 schools for Black students, it was also responsible for numerous failures, such as the staffing of these schools with white teachers and the inability to secure land for freedpeople, writes VCU Libraries.

According to “The Voting Rights War” by Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, shortly before the Freedmen’s Bureau finally closed, General Howard was dismissed as its president and the Bureau’s budget was cut in half. After that, it was only a matter of time before the Bureau was shuttered. By 1869, the work of the Freedmen’s Bureau was already limited to education and schools only.

The Freedmen’s Bureau finally closed in 1872, “under pressure from conservative southerners.” The Equal Justice Initiative writes that despite the federal effort put into the Freedmen’s Bureau, it was ultimately undermined by “the inadequate and incomplete commitment” to supporting and protecting formerly enslaved people. As a result, white supremacist resistance was also able to effectively hinder any large-scale attempts at societal change by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

This content was originally published here.

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