Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands

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The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, popularly known as the Freedmen's Bureau or (mistakenly) the Freedman's Bureau, was an agency of the government of the United States that was formed to aid distressed refugees of the United States Civil War, including former slaves and poor white farmers. The Bureau also controlled confiscated lands or property in the former Confederate States, some border states, the District of Columbia and Indian Territory. The Bureau was established on March 3, 1865 by the United States Congress and administered by the United States Department of War, and headed by Union general Oliver O. Howard.

Its main purpose was to help the newly-freed former slaves acquire some of the things that they had previously been denied, such as at least a rudimentary education and an opportunity to learn jobs skills outside manual labor. Not wanting to face this new potential competition, it was probably the least popular of all Reconstruction measures among white Southerners, and was one of the first to be abolished.

The Bureau was an important institution of the Reconstruction period. And it was the only organization that truly sought to improve the lives of blacks through the entire South. Unfortunately, the Bureau never was able to achieve its full potential due to budget cuts and limited jurisdiction. That didnít stop Howard from trying though. His loose interpretation of the legislation creating the Bureau allowed it to help blacks in many ways that were never thought possible. The Freedmenís Bureau was very helpful to many blacks in the poverty-stricken South. Indeed, no other organization would exist that would do as much for African-Americans for more than 50 years.

The Freedmen's Bureau was fully operational only from June 1865 through December 1868 and was disbanded in 1872.




The most widely recognized among the achievements of the Freedmenís Bureau are its accomplishments in the field of education. The Bureau spent five million dollars to set up schools for blacks. By the end of 1865, more than 90,000 former slaves were enrolled as students in public schools. Even more amazingly, attendance rates at the new schools for freedmen were between 79 and 82 percent (by contrast, attendance at New York State white schools averaged 43 percent). By 1870, there were more than 1,000 schools for freedmen in the South. J. W. Alvord, an inspector for the bureau, wrote that the freedmen "have the natural thirst for knowledge," aspire to "power and influence Ö coupled with learning," and are excited by "the special study of books." Among the former slaves, both children and adults indulged in this new opportunity to learn. One attendee was a 105 year old man named Cupid who "feared he was almost too old to learn." However, he was soon "working diligently at the alphabet."

Land distribution

The Freedmenís Bureau also played a considerable role in securing land for freed blacks. Howard was a strong promoter of this cause. He advised Bureau agents to invest their own money to lease farms to freedmen and suggested subdividing farms and building homes for freedmen willing to work for wages. One way the Bureau helped blacks get a stake in the land was to prevent them from being defrauded. For instance, after the black troops had received their paychecks, a group of 260 of them decided to buy a 10,690 acre (43 km²) farm in Mississippi. The Bureau immediately sent a special inspector to oversee the transaction. He soon found that the current treasurer who had been appointed by the group was incompetent and corrupt. The Bureau recommended that this man be removed, and engineered a sound financial plan to protect the farm, which included an agent from the Bureau who would supervise the financial transactions on the farm in order to protect the freedmen from fraud. Howard also created a $52,000 trust fund for freedmen, which would be used to purchase land and resell the sites to blacks. One of the purchases made with these funds was a 375 acre (1.5 km²) tract of land near Washington D.C. The land was divided up into 359 lots and sold to freedmen for $225 each. Many other similar purchases were engineered, which provided homes for countless former slaves.

Day-to-day duties

One of the more important, but rarely emphasized motives of the Bureau was to pursue everyday problems of the freedmen and poor whites. These problems usually had to do with various needs for clothing, food, medicine, and other such aids. The Bureau gave out 15 million rations of food to blacks. Also, the Bureau set up a system where planters could borrow rations in order to feed freedmen they employed. Though the Bureau set aside $350,000 for this service, only $35,000 was borrowed. The Bureau attempted to strengthen existing medical care facilities as well as expand services into rural areas through newly established clinics. The Bureau succeeded in giving medical care to over one million people.

Church establishment

The freedmen also sought the Bureau's aid in establishing churches. After the war, freedmen had limited options for religious services because blacks were not given a formal religion in the South. Whites resisted sharing their churches with the freedmen. This led to the Bureauís role in making sure churches were to be built, and for the space to be used by the freedmen. The Bureau was still able to put the freedmen in contact with Northern aid societies even without any funds. This led to the collection of funds for land, buildings, teachers' salaries, and basic necessities such as books and furniture.

Rebuilding family structures

Under slavery, a stable and healthy family structure was very scarce. However, a countless number of freed slaves attempted to find their relatives at the end of the war. However, success was almost impossible to achieve. The Freedmen's Bureau agents did their best to help freedmen reunite with their relatives and establish families in accordance with the regulations provided by white America. The Bureau assigned its agents to investigate leads to the possible locations of family members and spouses. On occasion, it sometimes provided transportation to reunite families. The Bureau had very little money due to the inadequate legislation that had created it. Also, it was believed the responsibility to provide such services fell upon local authorities. Freedmen and freedwomen turned to the Bureau for assistance in fixing domestic problems such as abandonment and divorce. Most cases brought before the Bureau had very little information to start the investigation with. Although its efforts were noble, the Freedmen's Bureau could do little to reverse the sociological effects of slavery and had almost no funds or staff to support successful investigations to locate loved ones.

Violence and justice

The issue of violence and justice were not originally main concerns of the Freedmen's Bureau. However, local authorities refused and failed in dealing with these two issues and this forced the Bureau to pick up any cases that were not taken by the courts. After the war had ended, many Southern whites resented both their Northern occupiers and the newly freed blacks. With civil outlets closed, the local Freedmen's Bureau office became a place where victims could go. The Bureau received letters from both blacks and whites complaining of attacks, mistreatment, and other criminal actions. In dealing with these claims, the Bureau had little real power, and though it did the best it could, the cases never were usually never addressed by the local authorities.

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