In March of 1865, just before the ending of the Civil War, the Federal government created the Freedmen’s Bureau.1 Initially set up to help the roughly four million freed slaves, it also had provisions for helping poor white Southerners who were similarly destitute after the Civil War. In fact, the Freedmen’s Bureau was designed to help those in need throughout the South.
The Bureau had provided needed necessities that included clothing, food, shelter, and education. It also helped many freedmen gain land ownership. Congress had several reasons for creating this act, but the main purposes were to maintain abandoned lands in the South and to provide education for the freed slaves.2 Most freedmen wanted to obtain an education so they could make a start with their newly found freedom. It is fairly difficult to start a successful life without an education; therefore the bureau helped them out in many ways.
The educational goals of the Freedmen’s Bureau were only partially met. By 1870, the Bureau managed to educate 200,000 students with a teaching staff of 9,000 in only 4,000 schools.3 By the time the Freedmen’s Bureau ended in 1876, more than half of white children and about 40 percent of colored students were attending school.3 One of the main contributors to the Freedmen’s Bureau was the American Missionary Association, which was an organization founded in September 1846.5 The Association wanted to abolish slavery and give African Americans an education. They supported equal rights for all races and they promoted Christian values. Between 1867 to 1870 the Freedmen’s Bureau allotted $243,753.22 from the Association for working with the freedmen and refugees. 6
However, obtaining an education was more difficult than expected, even with the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Although the Bureau supplied the accommodations needed for the education program, the white Southerns had other plans for the schools. Most white Southerners were resistant to the idea of letting African Americans obtain an education. They believed that the newly freed slaves would get a false hope of equality, or would aspire to live as equals with whites. They feared that with their new freedom and education, the freedmen would be less willing to work for their former owners. They believed that providing freedmen with an education was a waste of money, because they believed that blacks were unfit by nature to profit by formal education. Others argued that any education of the freedmen would lessened his or her usefulness as a laborer.7 However, whatever the arguments were about the education program, the work of the Bureau proceeded.
Eventually, the white Southerns, fearing that the freed slaves would get an education, started taking matters in there own hands. They began taking control of the administration for education in the South. The provisions of the Freedmen’s Bureau made integrated schools possible, but virtually all whites opposed this idea. The first integrated school during the Reconstruction era was in New Orleans; however, whites refused to attend.8
Since the schools were being segregated, colored from non-colored people, the idea of having integrated schools in the South would have to wait another eighty years.
The Freedmen’s Bureau had its challenges. Overall, the Freedmen’s Bureau took steps forward for educating former slaves in the midst of hostile and chaotic times, the period we call Reconstruction.