The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Education of the Freedmen

Office of the Freedmen's Bureau, Memphis, Tennessee | Courtesy of Digitalcollections.nypl.org

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

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The Freedmen’s Bureau Office Of Lieut. S. Merrill, Superintendent Third District | Courtesy of Digitalcollections.nypl.org

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.

  1.  Alan Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 15 edition (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014), 409.
  2. Marjorie H. Parker, “Some Educational Activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau,” The Journal of Negro Education 23, no. 1 (1954): 9.
  3. Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 409.
  4. Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume 2, 409.
  5. Richard B. Drake,”Freedmen’s Aid Societies and Sectional Compromise,” The Journal of Southern History 29, no. 2 (1963): 176.
  6. Marjorie H. Parker, “Some Educational Activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau,” The Journal of Negro Education 23, no. 1 (1954): 12.
  7. Marjorie H. Parker, “Some Educational Activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau,” The Journal of Negro Education 23, no. 1 (1954), 10.
  8. Brinkley, American History: Connecting with the Past Volume, 409.

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26 Responses

  1. I am glad that the freedmen’s bureau was able to overcome many obstacles and freedmen were able to be able to receive education. The excuses the whites made to keep free blacks from receiving education were pathetic. It is sad that the white people would do anything possible to keep blacks under them. Although free blacks were able to receive an education whites greatly affected it such as making education segregated.

  2. I never heard of The Freedman’s Bureau and by reading this article it gave me a very good understanding as to what it was. I find it amazing that after slavery was abolished, that they gave African Americans a chance at an education. Although it was a complete success, it was a step forward to something great. Its great to hear about the good that happened in our history even though the bad made us learn, we have came along way in today’s society.

  3. The Freedmen’s Bureau was an important association for the South because it provided an education to its people regardless of their skin tone. Even though, I have heard of the benefits of the Freedmen’s Bureau it was nice to learn a little more about the background of the organization. However, I do think it’s quite horrible how the whites wanted to change the bureau and were opposed to freed slaves obtaining an education. Overall, amazing work on describing the Freedmen Bureau.

  4. The Freedmen’s Bureau lent a helping hand to those in need, but besides that, they brewed greatness behind closed doors. I have done much research on the Freedmen’s Bureau and have learned about it extensively in the past. I enjoy reading new information on it and seeing others’ viewpoints. The author did a nice job of laying out exactly what it was and how it truly benefited freed slaves.

  5. Okay, so if I am being completely honest here I vaguely remembered what the Freedman’s Bureau was/did. However, after reading this article I feel very refreshed on the topic. Personally, I felt like this article was very well written and did an amazing job at explaining it. Although the bureau had it’s problems that it faced, it’s inspirational to see how they persevered through all odds and fought for what they believed in.

  6. The Freedman’s Bureau was a stepping stool for America. It was a amazing idea, and it was obvious that they cared about former slaves receiving the essential items for a successful life. Especially a life that doesn’t require them to work for their former owners. Although white southerners were hesitant about it, they still provided them with education, but made it more segregated.

  7. It is truly amazing of how a great initiative can be morphed into something totally different. I enjoyed learning about this association. I loved how their purpose stayed the same, and their devotion was unwavering to help those whom needed it. Even though it was overtaken by those whom opposed their beliefs, they still granted others the education they very much needed.

  8. I did have prior knowledge of the Freedmen’s Bureau before reading this article, and I liked how you went into detail about who the Bureau was set up to help and all reasons why (to educate and also because of the land issue after the Civil War). It’s amazing to think of all the people the Bureau helped during the Reconstruction and its impact on the future; great article!

  9. This was a really interesting article! I started reading with no initial knowledge of the Freedman’s Bureau, but after reading it I am now able to say that I am walking away with some interesting information on it! One thing that stood out to me the most was how they strived for integration, and slaves to attend. Overall, this was an amazing article! Thank you for putting so much effort into your research, it really showed in the article just how much work was put into it. I look forward to reading more of your work.

  10. I had never heard of the Freedman’s Bureau before reading this very informative article. I was surprised to see that the goal was to educate all southerner’s regardless of skin color. That type of thinking for the south at the period right after the Civil War seems much too forward thinking and I am not surprised at all to see their mission was not accomplished. I think that it is interesting that the first integrated school was in New Orleans even though the white parents refused to send their children there. The Freedman’s Bureau seems like a great organization with an amazing goal that came too soon to be successful, but at least they tried to change the social norms for the south.

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