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The Freedmen's Bureau

(This page was developed by a Berea College student as part of a course on Chesnutt)

Charles Chessnut refers to the Freedmen's Bureau in some of his works.  In "Mandy Oxendine", Tom is a teacher from the Bureau.  After the Government support was diminished the people of the time began calling those who continued trying to reconstruct the South carpetbaggers or reconstructionists, these terms are mentioned in two or three of Chesnutt's works. 

   The Freedmen's Bureau was formed on March 3, 1865.  The Congress created it as a division of the Army.  The original duty of the Bureau was to aide in the transition of blacks from slaves to free men and women.  Army men made up a majority of the members because it was a division of the National Defense, however there were not enough people to serve so the transition did not go as easily as hoped.  At the peak of the Bureau's membership there were only nine hundred volunteers.  This may seem like a large number but it is actually minute considering the tasks the bureau members undertook.
    The Bureau was given legal rights in 1865, but these rights were very limited. They were allowed to try black people only if Federal Courts would not hear the cases. The Government Army Officials frowned upon the Bureau's methods because they did not like the idea of trying citizens in military settings.
    One of the jobs the Freedmen's Bureau had was to provide medical care to the newly freed slaves.  Several of them had been beaten and abused by their masters.  Nourishment was also a major part in the health of the freed men.  The Bureau distributed an average of one hundred and fifty thousand rations a day. So not only was this process demanding on the members it was also expensive.
    Another job of the Freedmen's Bureau was to divide 850,000 acres of government seized land into forty acre sections.  The Bureau sold these sections to the freed slaves to start farms of their own.  This land gave many people hope, but the government had to give the land back to its original owners.  Bureau members also tried to oversee labor relations and contract drafting's but this seemed impossible for the Bureau members to do because they had little to no authority.  Having the land stripped from them, and  the legalities of labor contracts denied, many of the freemen had to rely on the rich white land owners to survive.
    The one task that the Bureau had that everyone thinks of when asked what the Freedmen's Bureau did, is the task of educating the African Americans.  This was a big task because before this point it was illegal to educate black people.  The Freedmen's schools were organized by several teachers who had come from the North after the war.  Almost five million dollars were spent by the government to build these schools and to pay the teachers.  The Freedmen's Bureau was not working alone on this task, organizations like the American Missionary Association helped also.  Between 1866 and 1870 nearly eighty thousand freed black people were educated.  The literacy rate increased by fifteen percent during the Bureau's years of educating.   Some of these Negroes that were taught by the Freedmen's  Bureau went on to further their education at black colleges and universities like Fisk  and Hampton.  Eventually black people began teaching at the Freedmen's Schools.  Many of these pupils went on to be fierce leaders of the African American race.

The Freedmen's Bureau was disbanded in 1869 as a division of the Defense department, but some volunteers continued to "reconstruct" the South.  These dedicated men and women who continued serving were often called carpetbaggers, because they came in from the North with bags that looked like they were made of carpet.  The tasks these men and women undertook is still at work today in the lives of black men and women, who are striving to better themselves.

Information was compiled from:
    The Encyclopedia Of Southern History, 1979, Louisiana State University Press.
    The African American Encyclopedia, 1993, Marshal Cavendish Corp.
    Encarta Online Deluxe:  
    Ash, Stephen V. "Postwar recovery: Montgomery County, 1865-1870." THQ 36 1977, pp. 208-221.
    The Encyclopedia of African American Culture and History: 1996 Simon & Schuster: MacMillan: New York, New York.
    Encyclopedia Of Southern Culture: 1989: University Of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill N.C.
    Bently, George: The History of the Freedmen's Bureau: 1955: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
    Foner, Eric: Reconstruction: Americas Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877: 1988 New York, New York.

  Page created January 1999
Last update: Jan, 29 1999
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