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Monday, April 10, 2023

April 10, 2023: Remembering Reconstruction: The Freedmen’s Bureau

[This week marks the 150th anniversary of the horrific Colfax Massacre, one of many such Reconstruction sesquicentennials over the next decade. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five Reconstruction histories we need to better remember, leading up to a special weekend post on a vital new scholarly book.]

On a major and telling reason why the Bureau failed, and two lasting legacies nonetheless.

The March 3, 1865 legislation which established the federal Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) includes a stunning detail that reflects just how ill prepared the nation was for the realities of Reconstruction: the Bureau was initially intended to exist for only one year. As a result, when the Congressional Republicans supporting Reconstruction passed a bill to renew the Bureau’s charter one year later, in February 1866, President Andrew Johnson vetoed the bill (one more example in the long list of “What if Lincoln had lived?” hypotheticals), and over the subsequent few years the Bureau became increasingly under-funded, -staffed, and –supported. By 1869 the Bureau was operating only a skeleton staff; by 1872 the Bureau’s director, former Union General Oliver Howard, had been transferred to the West to handle Native American policy, and the Bureau ceased operations entirely. Yet in truth, this seemingly essential Reconstruction program only experienced one year of full support, a telling representation of how significantly hamstrung Reconstruction efforts were from their very outset.

Despite those significant limitations, however, and despite the intense opposition it faced during and after 1865-66 from discriminatory Black Codes, the terrors of the Ku Klux Klan, and so many other aspects of postbellum Southern society, the Bureau achieved a number of impressive, lasting results. The most prominent such effects were those related to education, and they took hold very quickly and potently: by the end of 1865, nearly 100,000 former slaves were enrolled in public schools run by or in conjunction with the Bureau, and despite all the obstacles confronting those students attendance rates apparently remained steady around 80%. When the post-1866 cuts in funding and staffing made it nearly impossible to run all these schools (church groups and other communities fortunately stepped in to keep many running), the Bureau shifted its focus to creating institutions of higher education: nearly 25 such colleges were created between 1865 and 1872, and many of them (such as Howard University, Fisk University, and Tougaloo College) remain in service today as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In and of themselves those colleges and universities represent a potent legacy of the Bureau’s educational efforts.

Far more intimate and thus more difficult to quantify, but at least as significant, were the Bureau’s efforts to assist freed people’s families, including working to reunite separate family members and performing marriages. Marriages during slavery were neither legal nor binding, and that reality both made family reunification that much more difficult and presented a host of other legal and social problems in the postbellum world. By not only performing but legalizing marriages between former slaves, then, the Bureau was able to fundamentally alter the legal and social as well as familial realities for these freed men and women, and for their families, descendents, and communities. Charles Chesnutt’s stunning short story “The Wife of His Youth” (1898) highlights how complicated but also how crucial were ideas of marriage and family for those who had experienced the fragility and absence of those core human experiences under slavery. In helping counter those horrific past realities and offer freed men and women a much different set of marital and family possibilities, the Bureau performed both a human and historical service whose legacies cannot be overstated.

Next Reconstruction remembrance tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction histories you’d highlight?

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