The Need for a Renewed Black-Operated Freedmen’s Bureau

A Bureau agent stands between armed groups of Southern Whites and freedmen

By Jasmine E. Tucker

New York City is the home to the largest population of African-Americans in the country, however only 1 out of 10 students out of the five boroughs will graduate from college. There are 33,000 abandoned homes in the city of Detroit. Cleveland has the highest unemployment rate for African-Americans in the country. Los Angeles has the highest population of homeless African-Americans in the nation. Sadly in Washington, D.C., almost half of the African-American population is suffering from AIDs.

All of these barefaced statistics are statements that we as a people have been marred by everyday in this generation’s existence. With this epidemic of suffering that is affecting millions of African-Americans; one can only wonder what the future will hold for our race. Relying on one’s faith can only get us so far. Being in America to suffer because of our race has been an underlying theme since the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade.

I can only recall one circumstance where this nation’s government has created a reform program geared specifically towards African-Americans. The establishment of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands – more commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau – is to this day the only reform system that was geared toward the well-being of African-Americans. Even though the Bureau’s goal was to also assist poor Caucasian refugees, their main goal was to give newly- freed slaves a clean slate after emancipation to work and learn.

A renewed Black-operated Freedmen’s Bureau in today’s society may be beneficial in correcting the social injustices plaguing the African-American community. The Bureau of Reconstruction was not able to completely renovate the African-American community; however it made many strides to improve the quality of life for African-Americans after the emancipation.

By the end of the Civil War, the South had been distraught. Many former slaves and White refugees faced starvation and lacked basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. It soon became obvious to the U.S. government that additional aid was required to end the anguish in the South and help Whites and Blacks to restructure their lives. In response to this need, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Act in 1865. The agency provided food, clothing, and shelter for hungry and homeless Whites and Blacks. The Bureau was also accountable for supporting former slaves in negotiating fair labor contracts with Whites and building schools to help educate their children and themselves.

General Oliver Otis Howard

One of the first Black colleges created during the Reconstruction era was Howard University, founded in 1867 by General Oliver Otis Howard, who was also the first head of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau established camps for the homeless, fed the hungry, and cared for orphans to the best of its ability. Additionally, the Bureau provided medical care to half a million freedmen and was responsible for implementing the Special Order #15, which we all know as “forty acres and a mule.” Despite all these accomplishments, the Bureau was also very flawed.

Congress never provided adequate funds or personnel to carry out the task of assisting the poor. The allocation of Bureau agents was scarce across the South, with usually one agent representing up to 20,000 people. There were few African-American agents, because only a small number of military officers were Black. Although the bureau’s primary concern was the welfare of former slaves, it actually served more poor Whites than Blacks.

Sharecropping was in fact introduced to the South on a sweeping basis by the Freemen’s Bureau. After emancipation and the abolition of the plantation system, the Freedmen’s Bureau assisted Blacks in negotiating contracts for pay or a share of what they produced for their former masters. Sadly, once President Andrew Johnson was sworn in as the new president, he began to pardon thousands of former Confederates and returned their land to them ending the Special Order #15.

40 acres and a mule

As stated previously, America needs a new Black-operated Freedmen’s Bureau. This bureau, which was a part of the Department of War, was created to not only assist poor White refugees, but mostly to assist the approximately four million newly freed slaves. Yet Congress and its White agents manipulated their power and misappropriated funds that could have helped the poor.

In today’s society, we are not physically enslaved like our ancestors were; however we are suffering from hunger, poverty, inadequate education, unemployment, and a lack of health coverage. Maybe a new federal program that is anchored specifically towards the African-American community will usher in improvements for the well being of our people and our children in the generations to come.

If the theory of the Dubois’ Talented Tenth can be applied, I’m sure the leaders in our community can create a movement of social change. We do not only owe it to ourselves, but we owe it to our children who are going to be in this world with skin that will forever hinder them. If it could be done in 1865, I believe our brothers and sisters can bring it into fruition now.

Jasmine Tucker is a senior sociology major and African-American studies minor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She’s also currently an Educational Issues Intern at the American Federation of Teachers. 

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First National Ceremony Dedicated to Black Civil War Troops

The United States Colored Troops were regiments of the United States Army during the American Civil War that were comprised of African soldiers, many of whom were slaves. First recruited in 1863, the 175 regiments of USCT constituted approximately one-tenth of the Union Army. (Sons & Daughters of the U.S. Colored Troops)

@NickWestbrooks reports:

WASHINGTON- As a part of the Civil War’s 150th anniversary, the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial honored the United States Colored Troops (USCT) with a candlelighting ceremony, making it the first national commemoration of its kind.

In addition to the candlelighting ceremony, the November 5th event included Civil War-era performances, a presentation of charters to the Sons and Daughters of the USCT and a keynote speech by NY1 News TV anchor and author, Cheryl Wills. 

Although America’s domestic conflict, which pitted the North (Union) against the South (Confederacy) between the years 1861 and 1865, is a century and a half old, Wills explained that the national moment of recognition for the USCT has never happened before.

“There hasn’t been a national ceremony or a national recognition of them at all during this 150th anniversary. This is the first one,” Wills said. “There have been national recognitions of the Confederate soldiers who fought to preserve slavery.”

Wills is also the great-great-great granddaughter of Sandy Wills, a Black Civil War soldier whom she wrote about in her book Die Free: A Heroic Family Tale. She said knowing this history of her family has been profoundly influential.

It has changed my entire life,” Wills said. “It’s given me a new sense of pride, and it’s reenergized me to be the very best that I can be.”

Prior to the inaugural national dedication, the African American Civil War Museum and Memorial has been conducting monthly presentations in which it invites the descendants of the USCT to attend similar dedication programs on the first Saturday of each month. Frank Smith, the founding director of the museum and memorial got the idea from Wills to include the national ceremony as an addition to the monthly program.

Smith said the event was necessary to help combat the rising historical misconceptions concerning the involvement of the Black troops in the war.

“The Confederates and the neo-Confederates have succeeded in getting Americans to believe that there were only White people in the Civil War,” Smith said.

Among the other inconsistencies Smith hopes to dispel through the museum and its programs are the benevolence of the Confederacy, the lack of Black self-help and the slaves’ preference to remain in bondage.

Smith said of the misconceptions: “They [Confederates and neo-Confederates] got the world believing a story that’s really outrageous and ridiculous. What we had to do was build a monument or museum big enough where we could change that and get people now to look at this war more seriously as a war of liberation not only for Black people, but liberation for America.”

During the time of reflection, Wills emphasized the timeliness and importance of keeping the Black soldiers in mind.

“It’s the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and Americans are remembering that epic battle. Once again, they’re largely forgetting the United States Colored Troops, so this is relevant because we cannot allow them to be forgotten,” Wills said.

“It’s fitting that we lit a candle highlighting a national remembrance of them in the nation’s capital with the national museum that’s dedicated in their honor.”