Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau

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During the Reconstruction era, the rebuilding of the south proved to be a difficult task. Even after the abolition of slavery blacks still faced harsh discrimination. Due to the continuous unequal treatment of blacks, the government of United States created the Freedmen’s Bureau. This organization provided Americans across the South with a resource to seek advice with race related issues. The letters provide first-hand information about what the environment was like that existed in the post­war south. Specifically, the letters provide a landscape exposing the layers of oppression that blacks faced. The letters clearly demonstrate that blacks were subjected to a new type of slavery that still denied their rights. The Freedmen’s Bureau made extraordinary efforts to try and help blacks assimilate more easily into society during the Reconstruction era. While the Freedmen’s Bureau failed to help former slaves in many aspects of their lives, the Bureau did help freed blacks in several important ways that they would have never received had the Bureau not existed, overall making the Bureau a success.

When the Civil War concluded, the United States entered an unprecedented time in its history. Among the numerous challenges facing the newly reunited country during this period, the debate concerning the freed slaves consumed the nation. This matter demanded some form of compromise. Thanks to the Thirteenth Amendment, slavery was abolished in the United States and all slaves became free men and women. There was no consensus as to what free truly meant when using it to describe the current state of blacks. Since blacks were no longer slaves and said to be free, many felt they should have access to all of the freedoms every white citizen enjoyed. However, some felt that their freedom should come with certain limitations. Before the Civil War, slaves were considered to be property. This prior treatment of blacks contributed to some Americans’ resistance to accept them as free people after the war. The United States government developed an agency called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, typically referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau. This organization served to protect the legal rights of former slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau also aided with their education, jobs, healthcare, and land ownership. The organization helped those in the South with assistance in negotiating contracts for the former slaves to make sure they were being treated fairly. The agents also supervised court cases regarding labor disputes and land titles to prevent unequal treatment.

In the South, states passed laws issued as black codes that showed the unfavorable attitudes toward African Americans. These laws were designed to restrict the freedoms and rights of former slaves. Through the passage of these laws, it took away a part of the freedom that these previous slaves deserved. A common Black Code in most southern states required blacks to enter into labor contracts with their employers. Oftentimes freedmen entered these contracts with their former masters. The freedmen quickly learned that no one other than their former masters would offer them employment. This kept them in the hands of their previous owner while taking away the freedoms that they were just given. In a Freedmen’s Bureau letter written by L.P. Dangerfield he apologizes to another man for hiring his former slaves without permission. Dangerfield mentions that the county in which both men reside “passed a resolution that no one should hire the servant of another without the written permission of his master”. This shows that this unwritten rule was enforced among the former masters. Most former slaves did not want to work for their former owners, but they were stuck and had no other options to earn a wage. In these situations, the masters treated the blacks poorly and unfairly. In an effort to help, the Freedmen’s Bureau worked to save blacks from these contracts.

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Freedmen received varying forms of compensation while working for their former masters. The best form of payment one could receive was owning a piece of land. Ownership of land ensured that freedmen could control what crops they wanted to grow, to whom they sold their crops and enabled them to retain the income derived from the land. The least desirable form of payment closely resembled slavery. The freedman worked at the hand of their employer. In this scenario, the worker did not have control over any aspect of their labor and often received insufficient wages for the work they performed. Since their options for employment were restricted, the employers were free to pay as little as possible. The Freedmen’s Bureau acknowledged the unjust treatment of the workers and decided to intercede. Richard Banks, a former slave, wrote a Freedmen’s Bureau letter regarding the dilemma he found himself in with his employer, Captain Miles Trice. Captain Trice promised to pay him $12 for the work he had done before Christmas. Banks said: “I have been to him several times and he won’t pay me anything... I would be glad you would take some action on it as I worked hard for it and am wanting the money”. Unfortunately, Banks did not have a unique experience and the Freedmen’s Bureau often dealt with similar cases. The Bureau would advocate on behalf of the freedmen, in this case Banks, and fight for the payment promised to them. The former slaves who sought the assistance of the Freedmen’s Bureau successfully received their promised wages.

Many former slaves found labor contracts forced upon them. The Black Codes of the South relied heavily on vagrancy laws to coerce former slaves into signing labor contracts. A person deemed to be a beggar could be arrested, fined, and forced into a labor contract if he or she could not afford to pay the resulting fine. The Freedmen’s Bureau tried to step in and advocate for the African Americans being victimized in these situations. The Bureau was often unsuccessful combating these court rulings. The legal system proved to a challenge they could not face. All white juries made sure blacks were denied any form of recourse through the judicial system. Even with weak evidence and arguments from the prosecution, African Americans often pleaded guilty to the charges. W. Storer How recounts the events that transpired in a court case from 1865. He explained that a “young freedman Robert Carter was tried for attempt at Larceny... He was taken before the Provost Marshal where he confessed his guilt... He contended and I think proved the confession was not voluntarily made. The other evidence would not convict”. Since juries had no African American representation, innocent men such as Carter were being wrongly convicted. Blacks knew that the chance of being found innocent was highly unlikely. By pleading guilty blacks felt they were protecting themselves from receiving more harsh sentences. Without successful support from the Freedmen’s Bureau, blacks continued to be convicted of crimes they did not commit.

Blacks were consistently being wrongly accused of violence, yet violent acts towards blacks were completely ignored. Blacks regularly received threats from the white community which prevented them from feeling safe within their own neighborhoods. W. Storer How’s first report for the Freedmen’s Bureau highlighted the anti-­black feelings that circulated the South during Reconstruction. He accurately describes the environment that enabled violence against blacks. When discussing the status of the freedmen How stated, “it would appear they are at work and willing to work, though not treated very kindly by their former masters and others, who in the presence of the military practically acknowledge their freedom while they tell the freedmen that they are not yet free as they will discover when the troops are withdrawn”. Since most white southerners shared this view about blacks, the Freedmen’s Bureau intervened in an effort to protect freedmen from continuing acts of violence. Unfortunately, even with help from the Bureau, many attacks were successfully executed, and numerous African Americans were injured or killed as a result. George B. Carse, the Bureau agent from Lexington, wrote a letter to military authorities reporting the murder of a black man. The attack was carried out by a white law student named J. C. Johnson who “shot a freedman named Patrick Thompson”. Six days later, George B. Carse reported, “J. C. Johnson... has been arrested and is now confine in the county jail ­­awaiting trial”. This event is an example of how, with the assistance of the Freedmen’s Bureau, whites could still be held responsible for the crimes they committed against blacks.

Even though not every attack was murder, many assaults towards blacks occurred and were sometimes perpetrated by an African American. In a letter about a black woman, Thomas P. Jackson wrote to N. K. Trout, “Lucy Trice makes complaint against Hams for assault upon … her daughter Betty Trice”. Even though this event was an interracial assault, Lucy Trice was able to receive help from Jackson and the Freedmen’s Bureau to bring in the accused man. When asked for assistance with cases such as these, the Freedmen’s Bureau worked to locate the criminal and bring them to court so he or she could be prosecuted. Without the assistance of the Bureau, cases such as these would have likely been ignored by local law enforcement. This made the Freedmen’s Bureau the only group working to help victimized blacks, providing them some more representation in society.

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Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau. (2022, December 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 23, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/reconstruction-and-the-freedmens-bureau/
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Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Dec 15 [cited 2024 Apr 23]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/reconstruction-and-the-freedmens-bureau/
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