The Freedmen’s Bureau and African American Education during Reconstruction
As Union troops advanced southward during the Civil War, they liberated an entire race of people along the way. These "freedmen", as they would later be called, found their way across Union lines, hoping that their immediate needs would be cared for by the people of the North. Impoverished, hungry, unemployed, and homeless—the United States government would soon debate how it should aid these refugees. Along with their state of psychical need, these Freedmen were also largely uneducated—only a few could read and write, and almost none had experienced any type of classroom setting.
The United States War Department set out to deal with these issues, with the "American Freedmen’s Inquiry Commission" of 1863. It was this commission that sought to deal with the issues of the newly emancipated slaves. It was from this commission that the Freedmen’s Bureau—also known as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—was created. From its onset, it was only to be a temporary relief agency, so as not to promote reliance on the part of the freemen.
Congress passed the legislation to put the Bureau into place on March 4, 1865. It was to "control all subjects relating to refugees from rebel states", and was originally passed as a one year proposition. It was to respond to all "applications for relief", by distributing food, clothing, fuel, medical attention, and other necessities to the desperate freedmen. It was also to provide legal assistance to freedmen, whose legal problems were often ignored by local or provisional court systems.
As the most immediate physical needs of the freedmen were being fulfilled, the Bureau began to look at education of the freedmen as the next logical step for their betterment and self-help as a race. Since most were illiterate and uneducated, the freedmen generally saw the importance and social significance of receiving a "white man’s" education.
Some elements of Northern society saw the value of the education of the freedmen well before the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The freedmen’s education movement went at least as far back as the onset of the Civil War. When General Benjamin F. Butler introduced the idea of "confiscating" slaves and holding them as "contraband", he not only provided them with labor and employment, but also set up schools for them to attend. One of the first freedmen’s schools—at Fort Monroe, Virginia in 1861—was set up in this manner, and employed teacher Mary Peake. She was a mulatto woman who represented efforts not only on the part of paternalistic Northern whites, but the African-American race as well—and its willingness to educated "its own" and work towards the betterment of their race.
Another early source of freedmen education was found in the Union Army. After emancipation, black soldiers who enlisted in the Union Army were not only given disciplinary training, but some were taught elementary reading and writing as well. The effectiveness of these basic educational skills led one Florida freedmen’s teacher to say "I do not find one who has been a soldier unable to read".
Many early freedmen’s schools were established by charitable, missionary, or benevolent societies and organizations. Many of these societies had been involved in the abolition movement, and made a smooth transfer to the fairly new realm of freedmen’s aid. The South Carolina Sea Islands were the main focus of many early educational endeavors, starting in 1861 with their Union occupation. Since these locations were important for producing cotton for the world-market, Secretary of Treasurer Salmon Chase appointed Edward Pierce to organize a system of schools for the freedmen of the islands. He was to appoint supervisors and teachers for these new schools.
Pierce had also done work in the freedmen schools at Fort Monroe, and his experience lead him to seek aid from his friends in Boston. What resulted of this inquiry was the Boston Educational Association—later to become the New England Freedmen’s Aid Society—that helped Pierce by providing funds and prospective teachers for his new schools. By the end of 1862, his schools on three islands alone—Port Royal, Saint Helena, and Ladies Island—contained 1,727 pupils.
The successes of these and other early freedmen’s schools were greatly attributed to the aid of "freedmen’s aid societies" that sprang up across the North. Many of these societies were branched off of the New England Freedman’s Aid Society, and shared its goals of collecting provisions and funding educational activity among the freedmen. It would be these charitable aid societies, as well as major missionary societies such as the American Missionary Society, that would be crucial to the involvement of the Freedmen’s Bureau in education once it was created in 1865.
Establishing a permanent system of freedmen’s education was not a stated goal of the Freedmen’s Bureau from its beginning stages. Since many of its creators had anticipated it to be a very short-lived agency, no provisions had been made for it to be involved in direct educational activity. The onset of its involvement in education was brought on by Bureau Commissioner, General O. O. Howard. Howard was sympathetic to the rights and needs of the freedmen as a race, and believed that the best way to assist them would be to provide them with educational opportunity. Only this could "relieve the Negro from beggary and dependence".
Howard proposed a way to sidestep the limitations of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s powers regarding education and the creation of freedmen’s schools, by co-operating with the existing benevolent and missionary societies that had freedmen’s schools already in place. He appointed a "Superintendent of Bureau Schools", John Alvord, who would work on the national level. Alvord would then appoint a superintendent over the Bureau schools for each state. This position required that each state’s Freedmen’s Bureau agency would work with "efficiency" and cooperation between the Freedmen’s Bureau and charitable organizations".
The Freedmen’s Bureau would assist the societies’ schools by appointing their superintendents, providing safe transportation and protection for freedmen’s teachers, allowing teachers to buy supplies directly from the government at low prices, and often provided a building in which to hold classes. Also, in some cases, the Bureau was able to match any donations given towards freedmen’s education from charitable sources.
After a few months in this initial phase of the Bureau involvement in education, Superintendent Alvord surveyed the state of freedmen’s education in the South at the end of 1865, finding approximately 740 schools, 90,589 students, and 1,314 teachers. With the further expansion of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s power, these numbers would greatly increase throughout the next few years.
Howard continued to put great emphasis on the importance of education to the freedmen, and looked for a dramatic shift in the powers of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He planned to begin phasing out the other divisions of the Freedmen’s Bureau, and devote even more attention to education. It was his goal that by the time the Bureau was to be terminated, an efficient system of education would be in place such that it "could be transferred to some permanent division of the government". He wanted to "put it firmly into place" before leaving it "in the hands of native whites".
With this in mind, Howard ushered his Bureau into another phase of educational involvement. The passing of the passing of the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill in July 1866 had great implications for the ability of the Bureau to become more involved with education. It now permitted government funding up to $521,000 per year to go to educational activities. Another means of funding came from the sale of land that had once been owned by the Confederate states.
This legislation came at a good time, as some state-wide freedmen’s education funding plans were failing. The Florida state legislature passed a law requiring adult male freedmen to pay a school tax, and Northern White teachers to buy special teaching licenses—all in order to fund freedmen’s education. Many blacks had trouble paying the tax, and when it was collected, many monies were mishandled and eventually were absorbed by the state, leaving nothing for the schools. Without the new funding capabilities of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a reliance on state funding may have been devastating to freedmen’s education.
Even with its new ability to raise these funds, the Freedmen’s Bureau still left much of the grassroots organization of individual schools up to their co-operating benevolent societies. As Marjorie Parker said in her study of the Freedmen’s Bureau, it was "a central clearing house to harmonize effort… and to bring areas of need into contact with sources of supply". The availability of teaching jobs brought many men and women—up to 3,500—to volunteer with up to 75 different benevolent societies that worked in concert with the Freedmen’s Bureau.
African American education during this time period was thus a shared achievement that required the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the many freedmen’s aid organizations, and the "invasion of light and love"; that was an outpouring of hardworking Northern White, southern Freedmen, and sympathetic Southerners that resulted in one of the most successful facets of Southern Reconstruction.
Henry L. Swint, Dear Ones at Home, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, TN, 1966.
Jacqueline Jones, Soldiers of Light and Love. U. of Georgia Press, Athens, GA, 1992.
James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860- 1935, U. of N. Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC., 1988.
Joe M. Richardson, "The Freedmen’s Bureau and Negro Education in Florida", The Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 31, No. 4, (Autumn 1962), p. 460-467.
Marjorie H. Parker, "Some Educational Activities of the Freedmen’s Bureau", Journal of Negro Education, Vol. 23, Issue 1 (Winter, 1954), p.9-21.
Robert C. Morris, Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction: The Education of Freedmen in the South, 1861-1870. U. of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, 1976.