The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually referred to as simply the Freedmen’s Bureau, was a U.S. federal government agency that aided distressed freedmen (freed slaves) during the Reconstruction era of the United States. The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, which established the Freedmen’s Bureau on March 3, 1865, was initiated by President Abraham Lincoln and was intended to last for one year after the end of the Civil War. The Freedmen’s Bureau was an important agency of the early Reconstruction, assisting freedmen in the South. The Bureau was part of the United States Department of War. Headed by Union Army General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau started operations in 1865. Throughout the first year, it became clear that these tasks were more difficult than had been previously believed as conservative Southerners established Black Codes detrimental to African-American civil rights.
Not withstanding, the Bureau’s powers were expanded to help find lost families for African Americans and teach them to read and write so they could better themselves. Bureau agents also served as legal advocates for African Americans in both local and national courts, mostly in cases dealing with family issues. The Bureau encouraged former plantation owners to rebuild their plantations, urged freed Blacks to gain employment, kept an eye on contracts between labor and management, and pushed both whites and blacks to work together as employers and employees rather than as masters and as slaves
In 1866, Congress renewed the charter for the Bureau, which President Andrew Johnson vetoed because he felt that it encroached into states’ rights, used the military in peacetime, and would keep freed slaves from becoming independent. By 1869, the Bureau had lost most of its funding and as a result been forced to cut much of its staff. By 1870 the Bureau had been considerably weakened due to the rise of Ku Klux Klan violence in the South. In 1872, Congress abruptly abandoned and shut down the Bureau, without informing Howard, who had been controversially transferred to Arizona by President Ulysess S. Grant to settle hostilities between the Apache Indians and settlers. Grant’s Secretary of War William W. Belknap, was hostile to Howard’s leadership and authority at the Bureau. Howard had approved of the closure, believing the Bureau to be temporary, but he was upset that he had not been at his office in Washington D.C. when the Bureau closed.
The most widely recognized among the achievements of the Freedman’s Bureau are its accomplishments in the field of education. Prior to the Civil War, no southern state had a system of universal, state-supported public education. Former slaves wanted such a system while the wealthier whites opposed the idea. Freedmen had a strong desire to learn to read and write and worked hard to establish schools in their communities prior to the advent of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
Oliver Otis Howard was the first Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner. Through his leadership the bureau was divided into four divisions: Government-Controlled Lands, Records, Financial Affairs, and Medical Affairs. Education was considered part of the Records division. Howard turned over confiscated property, government buildings, books, and furniture to superintendents to be used in the education of freedmen and provided transportation and room and board for teachers.
By 1866, missionary and aid societies worked in conjunction with the Freedmen’s Bureau to provide education for former slaves. The American Missionary Association was particularly active, establishing eleven colleges in southern states for the education of freedmen. The primary focus of these groups was to raise funds to pay teachers and manage schools, while the secondary focus was the day-to-day operation of individual schools. After 1866, Congress appropriated some funds to use in the freedmen’s schools. The main source of educational revenue for these schools came through a Congressional Act that gave the Freedmen’s Bureau the power to seize Confederate property for educational use.
George Ruby, an African American, served as teacher and school administrator and as a traveling inspector for the Bureau, observing local conditions, aiding in the establishment of black schools, and evaluating the performance of Bureau field officers. Blacks supported him, but planters and other whites opposed him.
Overall, the Bureau spent $5 million to set up schools for blacks. By the end of 1865, more than 90,000 former slaves were enrolled as students in public schools. Attendance rates at the new schools for freedmen were between 79 and 82 percent. Brigadier General Samuel Chapman Armstrong created and led Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in 1868.