Slavery's End Brings Both Joy and Confusion

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3 Slavery's End Brings Both Joy and Confusion

January 1, 1863, was a day of joy for African Americans. On that day, President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865; served 1861–65) signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The proclamation declared that most of the four million black people who had, beginning in the seventeenth century, been enslaved in the Southern United States were forever free. The Civil War (1861–65) had raged for two years by then, pitting the Northern defenders of the Union against the Southern members of the Confederacy (the name for the states that had separated themselves from the United States to form their own country) in a bloody conflict.

At first, the war had seemed to be more about the rights of individual states than about freeing the slaves, but President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation had changed the focus of the struggle. From that day on, the Civil War was about freedom. When the war ended in April 1865, the period referred to as the Reconstruction era began. It would last roughly until the inauguration of President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893; served 1877–81) in 1877, but its consequences would be felt throughout the following century. During this period of both achievements and setbacks, representatives of the U.S. government—including the president and Congress—and the military would join with both white and black Southerners to try to reorganize the political and social structure of the devastated, defeated South.

Slaves rejoice

The news of freedom arrived at different speeds to the slaves working on farms and plantations (large estates on which basic crops like cotton, tobacco, and rice were grown) throughout the South. In some places, the advance of the Union army had already broken down the slave system, by which unpaid, often mistreated black workers had toiled in the fields to raise millions of dollars worth of crops. In more remote areas, slaves did not know they were free until after the war ended. Some of them were informed by their masters, and others by Union soldiers or by agents of the Freedmen's Bureau, the agency that had been established several months earlier to help the freed slaves begin their new lives.

Wherever they were and however they heard, the former slaves remembered to their dying days the moment when they understood that they were free. As recounted in A Short History of Reconstruction, former slave Houston Holloway recalled that he "felt like a bird out of a cage. Amen. Amen. Amen. I could hardly ask to feel any better than I did that day.… The week passed off in a blaze of glory." More simply but just as profoundly, as noted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, another former slave, Richard Caruthers said, "That the day I shouted."

A Letter from a Former Slave

The following letter, dictated by a former slave on August 7, 1865, originally appeared in the Cincinnati Commercial and, a couple weeks later, the New York Tribune. It was also reprinted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery.

To My Old Master, Colonel P. H. Anderson

Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter and was glad to find you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Col. Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company near their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville hospital, but one of the neighbors told me Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here; I get $25 a month, with victuals [food] and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy (the folks here call her Mrs. Anderson) and the children, Milly, Jane, and Grundy, go to school and are learning well; the teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday-School, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated; sometimes we hear others saying, "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks, but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Col. Anderson. Many darkies would have been proud… to call you master. Now, if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department at Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you are sincerely disposed to treat us justly and kindly—and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years and Mandy twenty years. At $25 a month for me, and $2 a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back and deduct what you paid for our clothing and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to.… If you fail to pay us for our faithful labors in the past we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night, but in Tennessee there was never any pay day for the Negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve and die if it comes to that than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood, the great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

P.S. Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

The end of the war and the emancipation of blacks meant something altogether different for the white Southerners who had depended on their slaves' unpaid labor for their livelihood. Defeated by a hated enemy and faced with the huge challenge of rebuilding their shattered lives, these whites expressed a multitude of negative emotions. They were angry and embittered, worried about the future, and most of all bewildered about their new relationship with the black people around them. Revealing her belief that blacks could not possibly be independent beings, in charge of their own lives, a former slaveholder quoted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery asked, "If they don't belong to me, whose are they?"

This comment highlights the racist attitude common among Southern whites (and also among most Northerners of the period) that held that blacks were inferior to people of northern European descent, were incapable of caring for themselves, and were not suited for anything but serving white people. Southerners had, of course, used this racist belief to justify slavery itself, and in the years to come they would use it to keep African Americans from taking their place in society.

The changes freedom brought

Meanwhile, blacks were learning what freedom meant, and figuring out what to do with it. Probably the most important change was that they no longer had to put up with the brutalities they had endured as slaves, especially the harsh physical punishment they received for misbehavior and the unbearable pain and grief caused when members of families were torn apart as slaveholders sold individuals to other masters. The end of slavery brought a welcome opportunity to strengthen and reestablish family bonds and to begin the building of a strong black community supported by churches, schools, and mutual benefit societies (organizations whose members worked together to help each other).

Moving around, or staying put

Freedom also meant that former slaves were now free to move around as they wished, whereas before the Civil War they had to have a pass from their masters to leave their own plantations. Many freed people immediately exercised this cherished right, leaving their former homes to look elsewhere for work—far away, perhaps in a large city, or as near as the next plantation. They left to find lost family members or just to be on the move and thus experience freedom. One white family who had always treated their black cook kindly and who now offered to pay her well to continue working for them were told by her, as noted in Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913, "If I stay here I'll never know I'm free."

Between 1865 and 1870, the black populations of the ten largest Southern cities doubled, whereas the white populations increased by only 10 percent. In the immediate aftermath of the war, many African Americans believed that the city offered them the most advantages—that there, protected by the more abundant Union soldiers and agents of the Freedmen's Bureau, they would be able to make the most of their freedom. There too, they would find the basis of what would eventually grow into thriving black communities.

Both black leaders and the Freedmen's Bureau, however, urged blacks to stay in the countryside and continue working on the farms and plantations. They cited such grim realities of city life as scarce jobs, inadequate housing, widespread poverty and disease, and strict vagrancy laws (which punished those who were unemployed and homeless). For the first time, blacks were crowded together into separate neighborhoods or areas of the cities, a trend that would continue into the twentieth century.

Some freed slaves chose to stay where they were or to return after a brief taste of the free life somewhere else. Sometimes they stayed out of loyalty to their former masters but more commonly as a practical choice. With few possessions, little money, and no experience on how to survive on their own, many slaves felt they had no choice but to continue in lives very similar to their old ones, except that they must now be paid wages or otherwise compensated for their labor. There were other changes too, especially in the way black people conducted themselves around white people. Some of these changes were viewed with curiosity or amusement by whites, but more often they were shocked and outraged by this evidence of a new way of life to which they must adjust.

New ways of behaving

Blacks expressed their freedom in large and small ways, each of which challenged or overturned the authority that whites had always had over them. They began holding their own meetings and church services; purchasing previously forbidden things like dogs, guns, and liquor; and dressing as they pleased. Women especially enjoyed this new pleasure, often donning brightly colored clothes, hats with veils, and parasols (decorative small umbrellas used as protection from the sun). Blacks might refuse to yield a sidewalk to a white person, decline to tip a hat to a white person they did not like, or even talk back to someone who addressed them in a demeaning way.

White Southerners were highly sensitive to these signs of what they considered disrespect, disobedience, or "sauciness." Sometimes they only made fun of black people for trying to imitate white people, but sometimes whites used violence to force blacks to behave as they thought black people should. It seemed that once that there was no market price on them, African American lives were cheap. Many were beaten and even killed for offending whites in various ways, including the most trivial. For example, among the one thousand murders of blacks by whites reported by the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas between 1865 and 1868 was one that resulted from a black man's failure to remove his hat in the presence of a white person.

Before the Civil War, blacks and whites had lived in close contact with each other. After the war, it became important to whites to keep up a strict segregation (separation) in all aspects of life, especially in public places. Justifying to some Northern visitors his prejudice against blacks, one white Southerner, noted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermathof Slavery, claimed, "I haven't any prejudices against 'em because they're free, but you see I can't consider that they're on an equality with a white man. I may like him, but I can't let him come to my table and sit down like either of you gentlemen. I feel better than he is."

Whites also worried that the freeing of the slaves would lead to miscegenation (sexual relations between blacks and whites), thus violating white racial "purity." Blacks found this concern particularly ironic, since every plantation slave quarters had its share of biracial children born from the rape of slave women by their white masters or overseers. Blind to this history of sexual violence by whites against blacks, whites viewed all black men—especially the much hated black Union soldiers who were now in their midst—as potential rapists.

Family reunions

One of the freed people's most urgent matters of concern was locating family members from whom they had been separated during slavery. This was a monumental task, because slaves generally did not have last names. Furthermore, they may have been sold more than once after leaving their families, making it difficult to track them across the many miles they may have traveled. Blacks made valiant, heart-wrenching efforts to locate their lost husbands, wives, children, parents, siblings, and other relatives. They often placed newspaper advertisements like this one that appeared in the Nashville Colored Tennessean: "During the year 1849, Thomas Sample carried away from this city, as his slaves, our daughter, Polly, and son.… We will give $100 each for them to any person who will assist them… to get to Nashville or get word to us of their whereabouts."

Family ties had always been important to African Americans, as had the idea of marriage. During slavery, most couples who wished to marry took part in a simple ceremony that involved stepping or jumping over a broomstick. Once they were free, many of these couples hurried to legalize their marriages, both for the dignity this process would bring to their union and for the legal protections it would offer their families. There was also a rush to acquire the last names that slaves—who were often given even their first names by their masters—had been denied. Many chose the names of famous people, especially those associated with freedom and democracy, such as Lincoln, Jefferson, and Madison. Others adopted names of former masters (often the earliest one remembered in a family's history), and some just chose names they liked. In any case, the ability to freely choose one's own name was much cherished.

Another big change in black family life after emancipation involved the withdrawal of black women from working in the fields or as house servants. Once again, whites ridiculed black women for "playing the lady" or imitating white behavior, but this was a meaningful step for many black families. Now that they had control over when and where their family members worked, they could choose to keep the mother of the family at home, tending to her own household instead of caring for other people's fields, homes, and children. This would prove to be only a temporary luxury, though, since economic conditions would soon call for every member of the family who was able to contribute to its income.

The church: A cornerstone of black life

In addition to the family, the church was a cornerstone of black life during the Reconstruction era. During slavery, blacks had generally not been allowed to establish their own churches. Instead, they had participated in the congregations of white-run churches, always relegated to the back rows of seats and never given any role in church administration. Nevertheless, the slaves had created their own vibrant form of Christianity, with Jesus Christ viewed as a personal savior who gave strength and comfort during hard times and would eventually deliver black people out of slavery. When freedom arrived, many blacks felt that it had come about through the kind of divine intervention for which they had always hoped and prayed.

Following the Civil War, the white churches did not offer an equal role for their black members, but in any case many blacks were eager to start their own churches. They did so very successfully, pooling their money to buy land and construct buildings and meanwhile holding services wherever they could find the space. In addition to providing religious services, churches played a central role in black life. They provided the settings for schools, social events, and political meetings; promoted moral values; mediated family conflicts; and disciplined members for misbehavior such as adultery.

Ministers were among the community's most respected leaders, admired for their public-speaking skills, organizational abilities, and wisdom in resolving problems. Many of them became active in the black political life of the Reconstruction era (during which over one hundred ministers were elected to legislative seats). Entering political life seemed to them a natural outgrowth of their concern for and knowledge of the people they served.

Also contributing to the growth of strong black communities were the mutual benefit societies, organizations established to help blacks help each other. They were often organized around professions or trades, such as fire fighting, carpentry, or stone masonry; life necessities, like burial; or topics or activities of interest, such as debating, drama, temperance

The Black Church: A Source of Strength

Spirituality has always been an important value to African Americans. After being brought to the United States as slaves, many blacks adopted the Christianity practiced by their owners. However, both during and after the days of slavery, they worshiped in their own ways and places. For example, most of them had a very direct, immediate view of Jesus Christ, considering him a personal savior who would one day lead blacks out of slavery.

Many slaveholders were concerned about the spiritual welfare of their slaves and allowed them to attend church (al-though private religious practice was strictly forbidden). Before the Civil War, both slaves and free blacks attended the same churches as Southern whites, including those of the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and other Protestant sects. Some were also Catholics. Although they had to follow the same rules of behavior as white members, blacks were always seated separately at services and had no role or say in church matters.

The spiritual instruction that slaves received also tended to reinforce their separate, unequal status. White preachers would urge them to obey their masters if they wanted to go to heaven. For their part, many slaves considered these white ministers hypocrites who preached to others to hold Christian values while approving of—and often participating in—the evil institution of slavery. African Americans also tended to find the services in white churches dull and uninspiring. Thus some of them held their own religious services in secluded areas, often at great risk of harsh punishment.

When slavery ended, African Americans were quick to establish their own churches, where they could take up leadership roles, express themselves just as they wished, and access the social services offered by black church groups. In addition, even after the war, the white churches maintained their segregated ways and offered no particular welcome or reassurance to black members. In some cases, however, white Southerners helped blacks establish churches by donating land, money, or temporary facilities or even performing some of the work to raise the church buildings.

The vast majority of African Americans, whether churchgoing or not, emerged from slavery into extreme poverty. Until they had enough money to meet construction costs, the new black churches initially met in temporary places like warehouses and private homes (and in one case, a railroad boxcar). Sometimes churches of different denominations—some of the most popular included the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and the AME Zion Church—would share meeting space or pool resources. Despite the impoverishment of the black community, the churches raised astonishing amounts of cash.

In addition to raising money for the building of black schools (and sometimes providing the facilities), the churches provided a number of much-needed social welfare services. These included lending aid to the homeless, the poor, the sick, the elderly, prison inmates, orphans, and black war veterans. They also organized societies to help with burial expenses.

The churches soon became important and busy centers of black religious, social, and eventually political life. They commonly offered three services on Sunday, in addition to Wednesday night prayer meetings, but some also provided regular week-day services. Churches catering to the majority of the African American population tended to feature very expressive, noisy services that stressed God's immediate presence. Churches frequented by members of the small black middle and upper classes tended to resemble white churches in their more orderly, quiet nature and standard hymns.

The churches provided a place for blacks to affirm their social status, reinforce their feeling of belonging to a community, and lend their lives a deeper sense of meaning. The churches upheld a strict code of behavior by which card-playing, drinking, and gambling were forbidden and adultery discouraged. Ministers helped resolve family disputes, and members knew that they could be expelled or banished because of misbehavior.

The black ministers were especially admired for their preaching, which was often dramatic and filled with vivid imagery, and for the guidance and advice they provided. Thus it is not surprising that clergymen dominated the black political leadership that emerged during the Reconstruction era. For example, of the 255 African Americans in South Carolina's legislature between 1868 and 1876, 43 were ministers. By contrast, black women, who made up the bulk of church membership and played an important part in fundraising and organization efforts, were not afforded an equal role in church leadership.

Because they were centers of African American life, the black churches and preachers were particularly targeted by such white terrorist groups as the Ku Klux Klan, who used violence and intimidation to keep blacks from exercising their rights. Nevertheless, the churches continued to provide a strong base of support for African American communities during the difficult years that followed.

(the movement to stop the use of alcohol), or equal rights. These organizations offered social contact and support as well as, in many cases, sickness and death benefits for members. They tended to be dominated by the self-improvement philosophy that blacks were widely being encouraged to adopt in their churches and schools and by the Freedmen's Bureau. In some of the larger cities such as Nashville, New Orleans, and Atlanta, the mutual benefit societies also offered various forms of relief for the poor, including orphanages, soup kitchens, and "poor relief" (similar to modern welfare or public assistance) funds.

Education: The key to advancement

Before the Civil War, all the slave states except Tennessee had prohibited the education of slaves. Although some slaves still managed to learn to read and write, either through the indulgence of their masters or by their own initiative, about 90 percent of adult blacks in the South were illiterate (unable to read or write) in 1860. Blacks emerged from slavery with a deep desire to acquire education, which was central to their idea of what freedom meant. They recognized that they would be able to take better advantage of the opportunities and choices that lay before them if they could read and write. Students of all ages filled the newly established classrooms in large numbers.

Most of the funding for the schools built for Southern blacks during Reconstruction came from charitable organizations in the North and from the Freedmen's Bureau (re-placed after 1868 by state government contributions). But blacks took an active role in getting many schools started, often setting them up temporarily in churches, homes, and even pool halls until school buildings could be constructed. It became a common sight around the South to see black people of all ages and occupations peering into books, whether in a classroom or on a lunch break from work.

In the years to come, African Americans would proudly remember that, as poor as their communities were, blacks had raised one million dollars for schools by 1870. The money was used to construct school buildings and to pay teachers, many of whom were boarded in black homes. Following in the footsteps of the first white teachers, most of them women, who had come from the North to help the freed slaves, the first black teachers were often thrust into their roles—owing to the desperate need for teachers—before they had attained much education themselves. Like the ministers of the black churches, these teachers were much respected and were called upon to take leadership roles in the community, sometimes even moving from there into political office. Seventy black teachers served in state legislatures during Reconstruction.

Rebuilding the South

Among all the questions still unanswered as the Civil War came to a close lay a central truth: the Confederacy had been defeated. The eleven states that had separated themselves from and fought the Union for four years were now under martial law (military officers were in charge of keeping order) and were occupied by Federal troops. Many of these soldiers were black—since most white troops had been in the army longer and were thus discharged earlier—a fact that annoyed many Southerners. To the bitterness of defeat and the humiliation of occupation was added the reality of a changed physical and social environment.

Northern journalists who visited the South in the days following the end of the Civil War reported scenes of total desolation. They saw barns, homes, and fences destroyed; bridges and railroads torn up; livestock dead; and fields grown wild. They saw the remains of walls and chimneys standing where the Union army had marched through, burning everything in its path. The loss of farm animals, buildings, and machinery had a devastating impact on Southern agriculture. The loss of life—including more than one-fifth of the South's white male adult population as well as thirty-two thousand black Southerners who had served in the Union army—was also devastating. In addition, those who had converted their money to Confederate currency, which was now useless, were bankrupt.

Bleak prospects for the future

The Southern United States did not consist entirely of rich farming land and huge plantations on which slaves had toiled. In fact, there were many other areas of the South, such as the upcountry or mountainous areas of western Virginia and North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, that were populated by small farmers who had owned few or no slaves. Yet the politics, economy, and culture of the South had always been dominated by the small minority of slaveholding plantation owners. This group was reeling now from the effects of the war, not only economically (owing to the loss of property, including the approximately two billion dollars they had invested in slaves) but physically and psychologically. As they returned to their homes, the former Confederates expected to be treated harshly by the victorious Union. They thought they might lose their property or civil rights, and that they might even be prosecuted for treason. Their world had changed forever, and the future must have seemed very bleak to these white Southerners.

Perhaps the most complex and thorny issue of the Reconstruction era was that of labor. No one was sure exactly how the new economy of the South would be organized now that farmers and plantation owners would have to pay the workers who raised their crops. Nor was it known exactly how, now that they could make their own decisions, black people would choose to support themselves, how much real freedom they would be given in making decisions about labor, and how much they would depend on the government for help. As in other aspects of postwar life, labor was complicated by the vastly different ideas about it held by white and black Southerners.

Questions of labor and land

Faced with the prospect of a free labor system in which physical punishment of workers was outlawed, many former slaveholders disbelieved it was possible. In their racist view, African Americans were lazy and would not work unless they were forced, by the whip or by some other strong form of persuasion. They did not believe that blacks had the ambition, economic know-how, or intelligence needed to succeed on their own. The former slaves, however, looked back on their several centuries of hard, forced labor and the many luxuries their white owners had purchased through that labor and concluded that they were, in fact, very hard workers. In black eyes, it was the plantation owners who were lazy and who had, in fact, stolen the fruits of black toil.

That is not to say that blacks did not want to make some major changes in the labor system, even beyond prohibiting physical punishment. They wanted to work shorter hours than they had during slavery, when they would often be in the fields from before sunup until nine or ten o'clock at night. They wanted to control the conditions under which they worked (which usually meant eliminating the overseer and giving individuals or groups of individuals responsibility for their own tasks) and to achieve as much independence as possible. Most important of all, blacks yearned to own and farm their own land.

Immediately following the end of the war, blacks cherished a persistent belief that the government would be giving them the abandoned or confiscated land owned by those who had rebelled against the United States. This idea made perfect sense to blacks, who felt that they should now be rewarded for their years of unpaid labor and the contribution they had made to the growth and prosperity of the nation. Union general William T. Sherman (1820–1891) had seemed to confirm this belief when, soon after his triumphant arrival on the Georgia coast, he issued Special Field Order #15. This document made a large area of land along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina available to black farmers, four hundred thousand of whom subsequently settled on 40-acre plots of "Sherman land." It also led to the popularity of the slogan "Forty Acres and a Mule" to represent black hopes.

As it turned out, though, the order was deemed a temporary measure. Under a liberal pardon from President Andrew Johnson (1808–1875; served 1865–69), who had assumed office after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, former Confederates would be allowed to return to and reclaim the lands they had left during the war. Although some blacks would resist the efforts to force them off the land they had occupied with such high hopes, most would have to leave. Without enough money to buy their own land, blacks would have to become wage laborers or (more favorably in their own eyes) sharecroppers, who leased and farmed a piece of land and then gave the owner a share (usually half) of the crops they raised.

Just as blacks were finding ways to explore and develop their new economic freedom, Southern whites were looking for ways to create a new system that resembled the old one as much as possible. That would mean giving blacks as few rights, as few choices, and as little independence as possible. Most important, it would mean denying blacks access to land, because land meant money and power. Thus white Southerners banded together, agreeing to refuse to rent or sell land to the freed people. They also tried to gain authority over blacks by getting them to sign labor contracts that strictly controlled not only how they worked but how they lived, restricting them, for example, to their plantations unless they had permission from their employers. Under the state governments that would soon be set up under President Johnson's Reconstruction program, these measures would be encoded into laws called Black Codes (see Chapter 5).

The Freedmen's Bureau

The government agency assigned to help with all of the post–slavery era changes, the Freedmen's Bureau, had a very big job. Intended to operate only temporarily, the Bureau was supposed to assist not only in the creation of a workable free labor system but in establishing schools; dispensing aid for the poor, old, sick, and insane; resolving disputes both among blacks and between blacks and whites; and making sure that blacks received equal justice under the law. As noted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, a North Carolina Bureau officer declared rather grandly, "We desire to instruct the colored people of the South, to lift them up from subservience and helplessness into a dignified independence and citizenship."

This would have been a tall order under the best of circumstances, but it took place in an atmosphere of mutual distrust and hostility between blacks and whites, and with only nine hundred agents to cover the entire South. For example, one agent named John DeYoung was responsible for 3,000 square miles (with a population of about eighty thousand) in South Carolina.

Discussing the Freedmen's Bureau's mission with its commissioner, General Oliver Otis Howard (1830–1909), General Sherman commented, as quoted in A Short History of Reconstruction, "It is not in your power to fulfil one tenth of the expectations of those who framed the Bureau. I hear you have Hercules' task." Even though white Southerners detested the Freedmen's Bureau as a symbol of their defeat and losses, the agency often worked in whites' favor by trying to persuade blacks to work on the plantations. Blacks, meanwhile, invested much trust in the Bureau and remained its loyal supporters to the end.

Building schools, and fighting violence

Black people especially admired General Howard, who was considered a true advocate for black people's rights and interests. Howard put a strong focus on education, which he saw as an essential element in improving the lives and prospects of African Americans. Much energy went into coordinating the activities of the Northern charitable organizations that were responsible for setting up most schools. By 1869, almost three thousand schools (not including the private ones) had been established, serving over 150,000 students. Considered the crowning achievement of the Freedmen's Bureau, this feat laid a basis for a public school system in the South.

The first teachers were some five thousand white volunteers—most of them women—from the northeastern United States. Before the war, many had been involved in the abolitionist movement (the movement to abolish slavery). They were now eager to help the former slaves learn to read and write. Further, they wanted the freed people to learn how to be good citizens, and they emphasized self-reliance, discipline, frugality, temperance, religiousness, cleanliness, and punctuality. These were the values stressed throughout mainstream U.S. society during the mid-nineteenth century, and it was thought that black people must adopt them if they were to join that society.

Another important task of the Freedmen's Bureau was dealing with the violence that was occurring across the South as whites reacted in anger and brutality against their changed relationships to blacks. During the waning months of the war, considerable numbers of Union soldiers (many of them black) had been present in the South to help prevent or address such violence, especially in cities and towns. But after May 1865, few troops were still around, as most had been sent to other places (particularly the parts of the West where U.S. forces were battling with Native Americans).

The Freedmen's Bureau was, ideally, supposed to work with local courts to ensure that blacks could attain justice against those who attacked, cheated, or otherwise mistreated them. In reality, though, the white Southern courts were not willing to offer blacks equal rights. Blacks were not allowed to serve on juries and could testify only against other blacks. In any case, their testimony would not have been believed or given much weight by most whites. As recounted in Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery, a Freedmen's Bureau agent in Georgia noted with frustration that "no jury would convict a white man for killing a freedman, or fail to hang a Negro who had killed a white man in self defense."

The struggle for civil rights begins

For the first time since their arrival in the United States, blacks were now free to gather together and discuss what their role in the nation should be. During the spring and summer of 1865, black people organized a large number of meetings, parades, and petitions supporting civil rights and suffrage (the right to vote). In a number of states, they held conventions with locally elected delegates—many of them ministers, teachers, and former Union soldiers—who discussed the important topics of the day.

The most critical of these issues were equality before the law and suffrage, promises that blacks felt had been guaranteed by the words of the Declaration of Independence. Tens of thousands of young men both black and white had died in the Civil War to defend these rights. Participants in the conventions declared that African Americans were loyal to the United States, had made sacrifices in the country's defense, and were now ready to play an equal part in its society.

Before his assassination, President Lincoln had suggested that he might be in favor of a limited form of black suffrage. Revered by blacks as the man who had led them out of slavery, Lincoln had been a thoughtful and adept politician who often demonstrated an ability to compromise and to change his mind. His untimely death had made the future even more uncertain. The ability of the man who succeeded him, Andrew Johnson, to guide the nation at such a difficult time was unknown. In the past, Johnson had expressed contempt for the slaveholding plantation owners. But as his term began, no one knew whether his antislavery stance extended to more rights for former slaves.

Blacks did have a strong base of support in the U.S. Congress, where the Radical Republicans had already begun to push for black suffrage and civil rights. But Congress was not scheduled to meet until December 1865. During the seven months between the war's conclusion and the end of the year, African Americans as well as their friends in Congress and elsewhere would be dismayed by the turn of events. President Johnson's ideas about the rebuilding of the South would hold disappointments for those who hoped that a better society could be created in the states of the former Confederacy.

For More Information


Berlin, Ira A., et al., eds. Freedmen: A Documentary History of Emancipation, 1861–1867. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Blassingame, John W., ed. Slave Testimony. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.

Foner, Eric. A Short History of Reconstruction. New York: Harper & Row, 1990.

Golay, Michael. Reconstruction and Reaction: The Emancipation of Slaves, 1861–1913. New York: Facts on File, 1996.

Jenkins, Wilbert L. Climbing Up to Glory: A Short History of African Americans During the Civil War and Reconstruction. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2002.

Litwack, Leon F. Been in the Storm So Long: The Aftermath of Slavery. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.

Oubre, Claude F. Forty Acres and a Mule: The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Land Ownership. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865–1877. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1997.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction: 1865–1877. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.

Wagner, Margaret E., Gary W. Gallagher, and Paul Finkelman, eds. Civil War Desk Reference. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002.

Web Sites

Louisiana State University. The United States Civil War Center. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"Reconstruction." African American History. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"Reference Resources: Civil War." Kidinfo. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

"US Civil War." Internet Modern History Sourcebook. (accessed on August 31, 2004).

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Slavery's End Brings Both Joy and Confusion

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