Freedmen's Bureau Established

Friday, March 3, 1865

Office of the Freedmen's Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, or simply Freedmen's Bureau, is established as a part of the Republicans' Reconstruction policy to aid slaves who are freed with the resolution of the Civil War. As a part of the War Department and led by Union General Oliver O. Howard, the bureau is tasked with rebuilding Southern plantations sans slavery, helping Southern blacks find employment, and regulating contracts to ensure the fair treatment of free laborers. In 1866, the bureau also begins a broader mission to establish an unprecedented public educational system for Southern blacks, an action which eventually becomes synonymous with the bureau itself. Equally important, the bureau protects freedmen against restrictive Black Codes that Southern states pass to try to restrict their new freedoms.

These codes are invalidated by the Freedman's Bureau in 1866, although a restrictive system of sharecropping emerges to replace the labor of slavery, and later in the 19th century, more legal limitations, dubbed "Jim Crow" laws, would enforce racial segregation and black disenfranchisement. While there are initial successes in education, job opportunities for white and black teachers, medical assistance, freedmen elected to public offices, and the establishments of black churches, the accomplishments are eventually countermanded by a white racist backlash, which includes the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, the disenfranchisement of black voters, and a general Southern denouncement of white Northern "carpetbaggers" who participate in Reconstruction and the white Southern "scalawags" who aid them. The Freedmen's Bureau would not last long enough to encounter all of these developments, as by 1869 it is mostly defunded, and in 1872 it is finally disbanded.

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