The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, usually referred to as simply the Freedmen's Bureau,〔(A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774 - 1875 ). Memory.loc.gov. Retrieved on 2013-07-28.〕 was a U.S. federal government agency established in 1865 to aid freedmen (freed slaves) in the South during the Reconstruction era of the United States, which attempted to change society in the former Confederacy.
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 early Reconstruction, assisting freedmen in the South. The Bureau was made a part of the United States Department of War, as it was the only agency with an existing organization that could be assigned to the South. Headed by Union Army General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau started operations in 1865. Throughout the first year, its representatives learned that these tasks would be very difficult, as Southern legislatures passed laws for Black Codes that restricted movement, conditions of labor, and other civil rights of African Americans, nearly duplicating conditions of slavery.
Not withstanding, the Bureau's powers were expanded to help African Americans find family members from whom they had become separated during the war. It arranged to teach them to read and write, considered critical by the freedmen themselves as well as the government.〔〔(Review of ''Families and Freedom: A Documentary History of African-American Kinship in the Civil War Era'' ), Freedmen & Southern Society Project.〕 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 major planters to rebuild their plantations, urged freed Blacks to gain employment above all, kept an eye on contracts between the newly free labor and planters, and pushed both whites and blacks to work together as employers and employees rather than as masters and as slaves.〔Clayborne Carson, Emma J. Lapsansky-Werner, and Gary B. Nash, ''The Struggle for Freedom: A History of African Americans'', 256.〕
In 1866, Congress renewed the charter for the Bureau. President Andrew Johnson, a Southerner who had succeeded to the office following Lincoln's assassination, vetoed the bill because he believed that it encroached on states' rights, relied inappropriately on the military in peacetime, and would prevent freed slaves from becoming independent by offering too much assistance.〔〔National Park Service
(The Freedman's Bureau Bill )
Freedmen's Bureau Bill
1. Opposed to the use of the military during peacetime.
2. Believed the Bill was a Federal encroachment into state matters.
3. Believed this was "class legislation" for a particular segment of society that:
a. Would keep the ex-slaves from being self-sustaining, and
b. Had not been done previously for struggling poor whites (as he had been as an ex-apprentice).
4. Johnson did not believe that Congress should be making such decisions for states that were not represented in Congress at that point.
Johnson's second objections were the same as his first.
〕 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.〔(Freedmen's Bureau ), The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow . Jim Crow Stories, PBS. Retrieved on 2013-07-28.〕 In 1872, Congress abruptly abandoned the program, effectively shutting down the Bureau by refusing to approve renewal legislation. It did not inform Howard, who had been 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, and aroused controversy by his reassignment. Howard had approved of closing the Bureau, as he believed it should be temporary, but he was upset to have been out of Washington, D.C. when the agency was closed.
The Bureau helped solve everyday problems of the newly freed slaves, such as obtaining clothing, food, water, health care, communication with family members, and jobs. It distributed 15 million rations of food to African Americans,〔Goldhaber 1992〕 and set up a system where planters could borrow rations in order to feed freedmen they employed. Although the Bureau set aside $350,000 for this service, only $35,000 (10%) was borrowed by planters.
Despite the good intentions, efforts, and limited success of the Bureau, medical treatment of the freedmen was severely deficient.〔Pearson 2002; Jim Downs, ''Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction'' (NY: Oxford U.P., 2012)〕 Most southern white doctors and nurses would not treat freedmen, infrastructure had been destroyed by the war, and people had few means of improving sanitation. Blacks had not had much opportunity to develop their own medical personnel. In this period epidemics of cholera and yellow fever were carried along the river corridors, breaking out across the South.
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