freedmens bureau

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March 3rd 1865: Freedmen’s Bureau established

On this day in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands - known as the Freedmen’s Bureau - was established upon the passage of the Freedmen’s Bureau Act. Union victory was not yet assured, and Confederate surrender was still a month off, but by this point the Emancipation Proclamation had freed slaves in the Confederacy and the Thirteenth Amendment was making its way through Congress. Lincoln thus resolved to begin to provide protection for the four million freed slaves of the South. The Bureau, originally intended to last for only a year, provided food, housing, medical aid, schooling, and legal assistance to the freedmen. It also initially attempted to provide freedmen with their main demand after emancipation - land they could cultivate and be self-sufficient and beholden to no master. Unfortunately this goal was largely never realised, and most former slaves continued to toil on plantations for their old masters, working for a share of the crop and low wages. The Bureau also became embroiled in the political struggles of the day, causing an irreparable rift between the executive and Congress when President Andrew Johnson vetoed a bill extending its life. Congress overrode the President’s veto, beginning a conflict that would result in Johnson becoming the President with the most overriden vetoes in history. Throughout its life, the Bureau was plagued by a lack of personnel, funds, and support from the President, and struggled in the face of violent white opposition to Reconstruction policies and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The Bureau closed in 1872, and historians still debate its affect on the Reconstruction South and how much it helped the freedmen.

150 years ago today

Virginia governor Tim Kaine announces the launch of a project to digitize the records of the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau outside the Black History and Culture Museum, in Richmond, on Thursday, July 9, 2009. The Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau is the earliest major compilation of information on the African-American community, including names, marriages, educational pursuits, work contracts, health care and legal services. Behind the governor (from left) are Virginia secretary of administration Viola Baskerville, Sen. Henry L. Marsh, III, D-Richmond, Dr. Maureen Elgersman Lee, executive director of the Black History and Culture Museum, and Ahmad Corbitt, of the Church of Latter-day Saints.