On March 3, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln signs a bill creating the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. Known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, this federal agency oversaw the difficult transition of African Americans from slavery to freedom.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, born out of abolitionist concern for formerly enslaved people, was headed by Union General Oliver O. Howard for the entire seven years of its existence. The bureau was given power to dispense relief to both white and Black refugees in the South, provide medical care and education, and redistribute “abandoned” lands to formerly enslaved people. The latter task was probably the most effective measure to ensure the prosperity and security of the freedmen, but it was also extremely difficult to enact.
Many factors stymied the bureau’s work. White Southerners were very hostile to the Yankee bureau members, and even more hostile to the formerly enslaved people. Terror organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan targeted both Black people and white people and intimidated those trying to help them. The bureau lacked the necessary funds and personnel to carry out its programs, and the lenient policies of President Andrew Johnson’s administration encouraged resistance. Most of the land confiscated from Confederates was eventually restored to the original owners, so there was little opportunity for Black land ownership.
Although the Freedmen’s Bureau was not able to provide long-term protection for Black people, nor did it ensure any real measure of equality, it did signal the introduction of the federal government into issues of social welfare and labor relations.