Freedmen’s Bureau

The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 by Congress to help millions of former black slaves and poor whites in the South following the Civil War. The Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing, and medical care, established schools, and offered legal assistance. It also tried to settle former slaves on available land. However, the bureau could not fully carry out its programs due to a lack of funds and workers, along with the politics of racism and Reconstruction.


During America’s Reconstruction era, the nation struggled with how to help the four million newly freed blacks move from slavery to a free-labor society.

When Congress introduced a bill in February 1866 to give the bureau new legal powers, President Johnson vetoed the proposed legislation. He claimed it interfered with states’ rights, gave preference to one group of citizens over another, and was a huge financial burden on the federal government.

Congress passed a revised version of the bill. Johnson pardoned former Confederates, restored their land, and removed bureau employees he thought were too sympathetic to blacks.

Freedmen’s Bureau’s Successes and Failures

The bureau’s achievements varied from one location to another and from one agent to the next.

Bureau agents acted as social workers and were often the only federal representatives in Southern communities. The agents were sometimes attacked by whites, including the Ku Klux Klan. Most of the bureau agents were hardworking and brave people who made significant contributions.

During its years of operation, the Freedmen’s Bureau fed millions of people, built hospitals and provided medical aid, negotiated labor contracts for ex-slaves and settled labor disputes. The bureau built thousands of schools and colleges for blacks. It also helped former slaves legalize marriages and locate lost relatives.

Land ownership was seen as a way to succeed in society. The bureau tried, with little success, to promote land redistribution. Most of the abandoned Confederate land was eventually restored to the original owners, so there was little opportunity for black land ownership.

Freedmen’s Bureau’s Demise

In the summer of 1872, Congress responded to pressure from white Southerners and dismantled the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Source: Freedmen’s Bureau
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