The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was created by Congress in March 1865 to assist for one year in the transition from slavery to freedom in the South. The Bureau was given "the supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen, under such rules and regulations as may be presented by the head of the Bureau and approved by the President."
The bureau was run by the War Department, and its first and most important commissioner was General O.O. Howard, a Civil War hero sympathetic to blacks. The Bureau's task was to help the Southern blacks and whites make the transition from slavery to freedom.
Their responsibilities included introducing a system of free labor, overseeing some 3,000 schools for freedpersons, settling disputes and enforcing contracts between the usually white landowners and their black labor force, and securing justice for blacks in state courts. The Bureau was renewed by a Congressional bill in 1866 but was vetoed by President Andrew Johnson, who thought it was unconstitutional. Johnson was opposed to having the federal government secure black rights. Congress passed the bill over his veto. Southern whites were basically opposed to blacks having any rights at all, and the Bureau lacked military force to back up its authority as the army had been quickly disbanded and most of the soldiers assigned to the Western frontier. The Bureau was able to accomplish some of its goals, especially in the field of education. It established a number of colleges and training schools for blacks, including Howard University (named for General Howard) and Hampton Institute.
Howard believed that the mission of the Bureau was a temporary one, wanting to avoid black dependency on the federal agency. He firmly believed that African Americans should obtain all their rights as quickly as possible, but failed to see that because of Southern white hostility long-term support was necessary for them to do so. The Bureau also failed to bring together whites and blacks in the South because it lacked the means to do so. It needed support from Southern and Northern politicians and received little help from either. Its staff was cut significantly by 1869 and it ceased operations in 1872.
Responsibility for fostering black freedom was assigned to the Freedmen’s Bureau, formally known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (BRF&AL).
Created by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, the Freedmen’s Bureau was a temporary agency embedded within the WarDepartment. Its purpose was to provide “the supervision and management of all abandoned lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and freedmen from rebel states.” The act gave the Bureau the power to issue provisions, clothing, fuel, temporary shelter and other assistance to destitute white refugees and freedmen. It also gave the Bureau the authority to set aside abandoned or confiscated lands and to assign no more than forty acres to “every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman.”
The Bureau took on the responsibility of setting up courts to try criminal and civil cases involving blacks as well as supervising the treatment of freedmen by state and local courts. It mediated contract negotiations between freedmen and planters and arbitrated disputes when they arose. Working with benevolent societies, it set up schools and paid teachers’ salaries. It established hospitals and clinics. Bureau officials helped freedmen unite separated families and assisted black veterans and their relatives with bounty and pension claims.
Congress never provided enough funding for the Bureau, and few rents materialized as President Andrew Johnson pardoned most planters in 1865, resulting in the restoration of their property. In addition to the loss of revenue, the Bureau’s failure to secure significant amounts of land for the freedmen deprived the ex-slaves of economic independence and undermined their faith in the U.S. government. Hopes for a better future through land ownership began on January 16, 1865, when General Sherman issued his famous Special Orders number 15, which set aside a 30 mile swath of coastal land from Charleston, South Carolina south to St. John’s River in Florida. It promised a plot of no more than forty acres to each family that chose to settle and farm the land. Although the order made no mention of mules or horses, such animals were assigned to freedmen. This was the source of the “forty acres and a mule” myth and the belief that lands would be confiscated from former masters and turned over to former slaves. Because of Johnson’s generous pardons, however, only 2000 freed families acquired title to the land they tilled. Despite the fact that the Freedmen’s Bureau held over 858,000 acres of abandoned or confiscated land in 1865, few freedmen were able to acquire any of it. As a result, the vast majority of freedmen were unable to achieve economic independence as yeoman farmers, and they ended up working for former slave owners under contract instead.
More successful was the Freedmen’s Bureau’s efforts to secure justice for the former slaves. After emancipation, Southern white governments sought to apply antebellum Black Codes by writing them into their state constitutions. These codes were discriminatory in that they applied justice unevenly between blacks and whites. Free blacks of the antebellum period received harsher sentences for similar crimes. So it was to be for the freedmen unless the Bureau intervened. Instead of trying to strengthen its own courts, the Bureau took on the responsibility of monitoring state and local courts. Fair treatment for the freedmen was not always realized, however, as most Southern whites could not conceive of equal treatment for blacks. The Bureau, therefore, retained the right to overturn discriminatory decisions of the state and local courts.
The Bureau’s most enduring success came in the area of education. Commissioner Howard and his subordinates believed education to be the “talisman of power” and eagerly assisted the freedmen in setting up their own schools. Between 1865 and 1870, the Bureau spent $5 million in the effort to help freedmen build schools and hire teachers. For the purpose of training new teachers, it founded colleges such as the Hampton Institute, Howard University, and Fisk University. It also set up day, evening, Sunday, and industrial schools. It transported teachers from the North (mostly women) and it supplied building materials for schools. By the time the Bureau’s educational responsibilities ended in 1870, more than 4,300 freedmen’s schools served nearly 250,000 students. Despite the fact that schools were segregated by race and suffered from uneven quality, and despite the fact that most school-age black children did not attend school, the Freedmen’s Bureau played an important role in laying the foundations for black education in the South. Without it, opportunities for education for freedmen would have been very limited.
Emancipation brought with it a peculiar problem for freedmen—finding relatives who were sold away during slavery. The Freedmen’s Bureau assisted ex-slaves infinding their loved ones by acting as a clearinghouse for information. Northern missionaries and teachers working with the Bureau would often write letters for the freedmen who were looking for relatives. In addition, the Bureau sometimes provided transportation so that freedmen could reunite with their spouses and children. When freedmen had remarried after separation from former spouses, they often had to make the difficult choice of which spouse to remain legally married. There was also the problem of children born to ex-slaves with new husbands or wives. Custody disputes came before the Freedmen’s Bureau, and it often made painful decisions for the freedmen.