Emancipation Proclamation Anniversary, Part III

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Amistad will be hosting an exhibition related to slavery, abolition, and emancipation during its 2013 exhibition series. In addition, we will be featuring a series of blog posts from now through June 2013 highlighting items from our collections that speak to the topics of slavery and emancipation.  This entry focuses on the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was founded 148 years ago this month.

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, & Abandoned Lands (more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau) was founded in March 1865 as a division of the War Department.  The Bureau supervised all relief and educational activities relating to refugees and freedmen and also assumed custody of all confiscated land in the Confederate States, border states, and Indian Territory.   In short, the Bureau was tasked to help Southern African Americans and Whites make the transition from slavery to freedom.  The Bureau settled labor disputes and enforced contracts between White landowners and Black laborers, but its primary and lasting achievement is in the area of education. The Bureau oversaw some 3000 schools for freedpersons and founded institutions of higher learning such as Howard University.  Though the Freemen’s Bureau was only intended to last for the duration of the Civil War and one year thereafter, the Bureau did not cease its work until 1872, despite opposition from President Andrew Johnson and much of Congress.

One of the documents featured in our upcoming exhibition is a small two page circular (shown below) that includes the text of An Act to Establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees. The act was ratified on March 3, 1865. The second page of this document describes a provision for the Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner to dedicate abandoned or otherwise confiscated tracts of land in “insurrectionary States” to be parceled out to freedmen in quantities up to forty acres.  Such parceling of land never materialized, however.

Posted by Christopher Harter

(Images from the American Missionary Association Archives. May not be reproduced without permission.)

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