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THE FREEDMEN'S BUREAU







by: W. E. Burghardt Du Bois
The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color
line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in
Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea. It was a
phase of this problem that caused the Civil War; and however much
they who marched south and north in 1861 may have fixed on the
technical points of union and local autonomy as a shibboleth, all
nevertheless knew, as we know, that the question of Negro slavery
was the deeper cause of the conflict. Curious it was, too, how
this deeper question ever forced itself to the surface, despite
effort and disclaimer. No sooner had Northern armies touched
Southern soil than this old question, newly guised, sprang from
the earth,--What shall be done with slaves? Peremptory military
commands, this way and that, could not answer the query; the
Emancipation Proclamation seemed but to broaden and intensify the
difficulties; and so at last there arose in the South a government
of men called the Freedmen's Bureau, which lasted, legally, from
1865 to 1872, but in a sense from 1861 to 1876, and which sought
to settle the Negro problems in the United States of America.

It is the aim of this essay to study the Freedmen's Bureau,--the
occasion of its rise, the character of its work, and its final
success and failure,--not only as a part of American history, but
above all as one of the most singular and interesting of the
attempts made by a great nation to grapple with vast problems of
race and social condition.

No sooner had the armies, east and west, penetrated Virginia and
Tennessee than fugitive slaves appeared within their lines. They
came at night, when the flickering camp fires of the blue hosts
shone like vast unsteady stars along the black horizon: old men,
and thin, with gray and tufted hair; women with frightened eyes,
dragging whimpering, hungry children; men and girls, stalwart and
gaunt,--a horde of starving vagabonds, homeless, helpless, and
pitiable in their dark distress. Two methods of treating these
newcomers seemed equally logical to opposite sorts of minds. Said
some, "We have nothing to do with slaves." "Hereafter," commanded
Halleck, "no slaves should be allowed to come into your lines at
all; if any come without your knowledge, when owners call for
them, deliver them." But others said, "We take grain and fowl;
why not slaves?" Whereupon Fremont, as early as August, 1861,
declared the slaves of Missouri rebels free. Such radical action
was quickly countermanded, but at the same time the opposite
policy could not be enforced; some of the black refugees declared
themselves freemen, others showed their masters had deserted them,
and still others were captured with forts and plantations.
Evidently, too, slaves were a source of strength to the
Confederacy, and were being used as laborers and producers. "They
constitute a military resource," wrote the Secretary of War, late
in 1861; "and being such, that they should not be turned over to
the enemy is too plain to discuss." So the tone of the army
chiefs changed, Congress forbade the rendition of fugitives, and
Butler's "contrabands" were welcomed as military laborers. This
complicated rather than solved the problem; for now the scattering
fugitives became a steady stream, which flowed faster as the
armies marched.

Then the long-headed man, with care-chiseled face, who sat in the
White House, saw the inevitable, and emancipated the slaves of
rebels on New Year's, 1863. A month later Congress called
earnestly for the Negro soldiers whom the act of July, 1862, had
half grudgingly allowed to enlist. Thus the barriers were
leveled, and the deed was done. The stream of fugitives swelled
to a flood, and anxious officers kept inquiring: "What must be
done with slaves arriving almost daily? Am I to find food and
shelter for women and children?"

It was a Pierce of Boston who pointed out the way, and thus became
in a sense the founder of the Freedmen's Bureau. Being specially
detailed from the ranks to care for the freedmen at Fortress
Monroe, he afterward founded the celebrated Port Royal experiment
and started the Freedmen's Aid Societies. Thus, under the timid
Treasury officials and bold army officers, Pierce's plan widened
and developed. At first, the able-bodied men were enlisted as
soldiers or hired as laborers, the women and children were herded
into central camps under guard, and "superintendents of
contrabands" multiplied here and there. Centres of massed
freedmen arose at Fortress Monroe, Va., Washington, D. C.,
Beaufort and Port Royal, S. C., New Orleans, La., Vicksburg and
Corinth, Miss., Columbus, Ky., Cairo, Ill., and elsewhere, and the
army chaplains found here new and fruitful fields.

Then came the Freedmen's Aid Societies, born of the touching
appeals for relief and help from these centres of distress. There
was the American Missionary Association, sprung from the Amistad,
and now full grown for work, the various church organizations, the
National Freedmen's Relief Association, the American Freedmen's
Union, the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission,--in all fifty or
more active organizations, which sent clothes, money, school-
books, and teachers southward. All they did was needed, for the
destitution of the freedmen was often reported as "too appalling
for belief," and the situation was growing daily worse rather than
better.

And daily, too, it seemed more plain that this was no ordinary
matter of temporary relief, but a national crisis; for here loomed
a labor problem of vast dimensions. Masses of Negroes stood idle,
or, if they worked spasmodically, were never sure of pay; and if
perchance they received pay, squandered the new thing
thoughtlessly. In these and in other ways were camp life and the
new liberty demoralizing the freedmen. The broader economic
organization thus clearly demanded sprang up here and there as
accident and local conditions determined. Here again Pierce's
Port Royal plan of leased plantations and guided workmen pointed
out the rough way. In Washington, the military governor, at the
urgent appeal of the superintendent, opened confiscated estates to
the cultivation of the fugitives, and there in the shadow of the
dome gathered black farm villages. General Dix gave over estates
to the freedmen of Fortress Monroe, and so on through the South.
The government and the benevolent societies furnished the means of
cultivation, and the Negro turned again slowly to work. The
systems of control, thus started, rapidly grew, here and there,
into strange little governments, like that of General Banks in
Louisiana, with its 90,000 black subjects, its 50,000 guided
laborers, and its annual budget of $100,000 and more. It made out
4000 pay rolls, registered all freedmen, inquired into grievances
and redressed them, laid and collected taxes, and established a
system of public schools. So too Colonel Eaton, the
superintendent of Tennessee and Arkansas, ruled over 100,000,
leased and cultivated 7000 acres of cotton land, and furnished
food for 10,000 paupers. In South Carolina was General Saxton,
with his deep interest in black folk. He succeeded Pierce and the
Treasury officials, and sold forfeited estates, leased abandoned
plantations, encouraged schools, and received from Sherman, after
the terribly picturesque march to the sea, thousands of the
wretched camp followers.

Three characteristic things one might have seen in Sherman's raid
through Georgia, which threw the new situation in deep and shadowy
relief: the Conqueror, the Conquered, and the Negro. Some see all
significance in the grim front of the destroyer, and some in the
bitter sufferers of the lost cause. But to me neither soldier nor
fugitive speaks with so deep a meaning as that dark and human
cloud that clung like remorse on the rear of those swift columns,
swelling at times to half their size, almost engulfing and choking
them. In vain were they ordered back, in vain were bridges hewn
from beneath their feet; on they trudged and writhed and surged,
until they rolled into Savannah, a starved and naked horde of tens
of thousands. There too came the characteristic military remedy:
"The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned ricefields along
the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country
bordering the St. John's River, Florida, are reserved and set
apart for the settlement of Negroes now made free by act of war."
So read the celebrated field order.

All these experiments, orders, and systems were bound to attract
and perplex the government and the nation. Directly after the
Emancipation Proclamation, Representative Eliot had introduced a
bill creating a Bureau of Emancipation, but it was never reported.
The following June, a committee of inquiry, appointed by the
Secretary of War, reported in favor of a temporary bureau for the
"improvement, protection, and employment of refugee freedmen," on
much the same lines as were afterward followed. Petitions came in
to President Lincoln from distinguished citizens and
organizations, strongly urging a comprehensive and unified plan of
dealing with the freedmen, under a bureau which should be "charged
with the study of plans and execution of measures for easily
guiding, and in every way judiciously and humanely aiding, the
passage of our emancipated and yet to be emancipated blacks from
the old condition of forced labor to their new state of voluntary
industry."

Some half-hearted steps were early taken by the government to put
both freedmen and abandoned estates under the supervision of the
Treasury officials. Laws of 1863 and 1864 directed them to take
charge of and lease abandoned lands for periods not exceeding
twelve months, and to "provide in such leases or otherwise for the
employment and general welfare" of the freedmen. Most of the army
officers looked upon this as a welcome relief from perplexing
"Negro affairs;" but the Treasury hesitated and blundered, and
although it leased large quantities of land and employed many
Negroes, especially along the Mississippi, yet it left the virtual
control of the laborers and their relations to their neighbors in
the hands of the army.

In March, 1864, Congress at last turned its attention to the
subject, and the House passed a bill, by a majority of two,
establishing a Bureau for Freedmen in the War Department. Senator
Sumner, who had charge of the bill in the Senate, argued that
freedmen and abandoned lands ought to be under the same
department, and reported a substitute for the House bill,
attaching the Bureau to the Treasury Department. This bill
passed, but too late for action in the House. The debate wandered
over the whole policy of the administration and the general
question of slavery, without touching very closely the specific
merits of the measure in hand.

Meantime the election took place, and the administration,
returning from the country with a vote of renewed confidence,
addressed itself to the matter more seriously. A conference
between the houses agreed upon a carefully drawn measure which
contained the chief provisions of Charles Sumner's bill, but made
the proposed organization a department independent of both the War
and Treasury officials. The bill was conservative, giving the new
department "general superintendence of all freedmen." It was to
"establish regulations" for them, protect them, lease them lands,
adjust their wages, and appear in civil and military courts as
their "next friend." There were many limitations attached to the
powers thus granted, and the organization was made permanent.
Nevertheless, the Senate defeated the bill, and a new conference
committee was appointed. This committee reported a new bill,
February 28, which was whirled through just as the session closed,
and which became the act of 1865 establishing in the War
Department a "Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands."

This last compromise was a hasty bit of legislation, vague and
uncertain in outline. A Bureau was created, "to continue during
the present War of Rebellion, and for one year thereafter," to
which was given "the supervision and management of all abandoned
lands, and the control of all subjects relating to refugees and
freedmen," under "such rules and regulations as may be presented
by the head of the Bureau and approved by the President." A
commissioner, appointed by the President and Senate, was to
control the Bureau, with an office force not exceeding ten clerks.
The President might also appoint commissioners in the seceded
states, and to all these offices military officials might be
detailed at regular pay. The Secretary of War could issue
rations, clothing, and fuel to the destitute, and all abandoned
property was placed in the hands of the Bureau for eventual lease
and sale to ex-slaves in forty-acre parcels.

Thus did the United States government definitely assume charge of
the emancipated Negro as the ward of the nation. It was a
tremendous undertaking. Here, at a stroke of the pen, was erected
a government of millions of men,--and not ordinary men, either,
but black men emasculated by a peculiarly complete system of
slavery, centuries old; and now, suddenly, violently, they come
into a new birthright, at a time of war and passion, in the midst
of the stricken, embittered population of their former masters.
Any man might well have hesitated to assume charge of such a work,
with vast responsibilities, indefinite powers, and limited
resources. Probably no one but a soldier would have answered such
a call promptly; and indeed no one but a soldier could be called,
for Congress had appropriated no money for salaries and expenses.

Less than a month after the weary emancipator passed to his rest,
his successor assigned Major General Oliver O. Howard to duty as
commissioner of the new Bureau. He was a Maine man, then only
thirty-five years of age. He had marched with Sherman to the sea,
had fought well at Gettysburg, and had but a year before been
assigned to the command of the Department of Tennessee. An honest
and sincere men, with rather too much faith in human nature,
little aptitude for systematic business and intricate detail, he
was nevertheless conservative, hard-working, and, above all,
acquainted at first-hand with much of the work before him. And of
that work it has been truly said, "No approximately correct
history of civilization can ever be written which does not throw
out in bold relief, as one of the great landmarks of political and
social progress, the organization and administration of the
Freedmen's Bureau."

On May 12, 1865, Howard was appointed, and he assumed the duties
of his office promptly on the 15th, and began examining the field
of work. A curious mess he looked upon: little despotisms,
communistic experiments, slavery, peonage, business speculations,
organized charity, unorganized almsgiving,--all reeling on under
the guise of helping the freedman, and all enshrined in the smoke
and blood of war and the cursing and silence of angry men. On May
19 the new government--for a government it really was--issued its
constitution; commissioners were to be appointed in each of the
seceded states, who were to take charge of "all subjects relating
to refugees and freedmen," and all relief and rations were to be
given by their consent alone. The Bureau invited continued
cooperation with benevolent societies, and declared, "It will be
the object of all commissioners to introduce practicable systems
of compensated labor," and to establish schools. Forthwith nine
assistant commissioners were appointed. They were to hasten to
their fields of work; seek gradually to close relief
establishments, and make the destitute self-supporting; act as
courts of law where there were no courts, or where Negroes were
not recognized in them as free; establish the institution of
marriage among ex-slaves, and keep records; see that freedmen were
free to choose their employers, and help in making fair contracts
for them; and finally, the circular said, "Simple good faith, for
which we hope on all hands for those concerned in the passing away
of slavery, will especially relieve the assistant commissioners in
the discharge of their duties toward the freedmen, as well as
promote the general welfare."

No sooner was the work thus started, and the general system and
local organization in some measure begun, than two grave
difficulties appeared which changed largely the theory and outcome
of Bureau work. First, there were the abandoned lands of the
South. It had long been the more or less definitely expressed
theory of the North that all the chief problems of emancipation
might be settled by establishing the slaves on the forfeited lands
of their masters,--a sort of poetic justice, said some. But this
poetry done into solemn prose meant either wholesale confiscation
of private property in the South, or vast appropriations. Now
Congress had not appropriated a cent, and no sooner did the
proclamations of general amnesty appear than the 800,000 acres of
abandoned lands in the hands of the Freedmen's Bureau melted
quickly away. The second difficulty lay in perfecting the local
organization of the Bureau throughout the wide field of work.
Making a new machine and sending out officials of duly ascertained
fitness for a great work of social reform is no child's task; but
this task was even harder, for a new central organization had to
be fitted on a heterogeneous and confused but already existing
system of relief and control of ex-slaves; and the agents
available for this work must be sought for in an army still busy
with war operations,--men in the very nature of the case ill
fitted for delicate social work,--or among the questionable camp
followers of an invading host. Thus, after a year's work,
vigorously as it was pushed, the problem looked even more
difficult to grasp and solve than at the beginning. Nevertheless,
three things that year's work did, well worth the doing: it
relieved a vast amount of physical suffering; it transported 7000
fugitives from congested centres back to the farm; and, best of
all, it inaugurated the crusade of the New England schoolma'am.

The annals of this Ninth Crusade are yet to be written, the tale
of a mission that seemed to our age far more quixotic than the
quest of St. Louis seemed to his. Behind the mists of ruin and
rapine waved the calico dresses of women who dared, and after the
hoarse mouthings of the field guns rang the rhythm of the
alphabet. Rich and poor they were, serious and curious. Bereaved
now of a father, now of a brother, now of more than these, they
came seeking a life work in planting New England schoolhouses
among the white and black of the South. They did their work well.
In that first year they taught 100,000 souls, and more.

Evidently, Congress must soon legislate again on the hastily
organized Bureau, which had so quickly grown into wide
significance and vast possibilities. An institution such as that
was well-nigh as difficult to end as to begin. Early in 1866
Congress took up the matter, when Senator Trumbull, of Illinois,
introduced a bill to extend the Bureau and enlarge its powers.
This measure received, at the hands of Congress, far more thorough
discussion and attention than its predecessor. The war cloud had
thinned enough to allow a clearer conception of the work of
emancipation. The champions of the bill argued that the
strengthening of the Freedmen's Bureau was still a military
necessity; that it was needed for the proper carrying out of the
Thirteenth Amendment, and was a work of sheer justice to the ex-
slave, at a trifling cost to the government. The opponents of the
measure declared that the war was over, and the necessity for war
measures past; that the Bureau, by reason of its extraordinary
powers, was clearly unconstitutional in time of peace, and was
destined to irritate the South and pauperize the freedmen, at a
final cost of possibly hundreds of millions. Two of these
arguments were unanswered, and indeed unanswerable: the one that
the extraordinary powers of the Bureau threatened the civil rights
of all citizens; and the other that the government must have power
to do what manifestly must be done, and that present abandonment
of the freedmen meant their practical enslavement. The bill which
finally passed enlarged and made permanent the Freedmen's Bureau.
It was promptly vetoed by President Johnson, as
"unconstitutional," "unnecessary," and "extrajudicial," and failed
of passage over the veto. Meantime, however, the breach between
Congress and the President began to broaden, and a modified form
of the lost bill was finally passed over the President's second
veto, July 16.

The act of 1866 gave the Freedmen's Bureau its final form,--the
form by which it will be known to posterity and judged of men. It
extended the existence of the Bureau to July, 1868; it authorized
additional assistant commissioners, the retention of army officers
mustered out of regular service, the sale of certain forfeited
lands to freedmen on nominal terms, the sale of Confederate public
property for Negro schools, and a wider field of judicial
interpretation and cognizance. The government of the un-
reconstructed South was thus put very largely in the hands of the
Freedmen's Bureau, especially as in many cases the departmental
military commander was now made also assistant commissioner. It
was thus that the Freedmen's Bureau became a full-fledged
government of men. It made laws, executed them and interpreted
them; it laid and collected taxes, defined and punished crime,
maintained and used military force, and dictated such measures as
it thought necessary and proper for the accomplishment of its
varied ends. Naturally, all these powers were not exercised
continuously nor to their fullest extent; and yet, as General
Howard has said, "scarcely any subject that has to be legislated
upon in civil society failed, at one time or another, to demand
the action of this singular Bureau."

To understand and criticise intelligently so vast a work, one must
not forget an instant the drift of things in the later sixties:
Lee had surrendered, Lincoln was dead, and Johnson and Congress
were at loggerheads; the Thirteenth Amendment was adopted, the
Fourteenth pending, and the Fifteenth declared in force in 1870.
Guerrilla raiding, the ever present flickering after-flame of war,
was spending its force against the Negroes, and all the Southern
land was awakening as from some wild dream to poverty and social
revolution. In a time of perfect calm, amid willing neighbors and
streaming wealth, the social uplifting of 4,000,000 slaves to an
assured and self-sustaining place in the body politic and economic
would have been an herculean task; but when to the inherent
difficulties of so delicate and nice a social operation were added
the spite and hate of conflict, the Hell of War; when suspicion
and cruelty were rife, and gaunt Hunger wept beside Bereavement,--
in such a case, the work of any instrument of social regeneration
was in large part foredoomed to failure. The very name of the
Bureau stood for a thing in the South which for two centuries and
better men had refused even to argue,--that life amid free Negroes
was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments. The agents
which the Bureau could command varied all the way from unselfish
philanthropists to narrow-minded busybodies and thieves; and even
though it be true that the average was far better than the worst,
it was the one fly that helped to spoil the ointment. Then, amid
all this crouched the freed slave, bewildered between friend and
foe. He had emerged from slavery: not the worst slavery in the
world, not a slavery that made all life unbearable,--rather, a
slavery that had here and there much of kindliness, fidelity, and
happiness,--but withal slavery, which, so far as human aspiration
and desert were concerned, classed the black man and the ox
together. And the Negro knew full well that, whatever their
deeper convictions may have been, Southern men had fought with
desperate energy to perpetuate this slavery, under which the black
masses, with half-articulate thought, had writhed and shivered.
They welcomed freedom with a cry. They fled to the friends that
had freed them. They shrank from the master who still strove for
their chains. So the cleft between the white and black South
grew. Idle to say it never should have been; it was as inevitable
as its results were pitiable. Curiously incongruous elements were
left arrayed against each other: the North, the government, the
carpetbagger, and the slave, here; and there, all the South that
was white, whether gentleman or vagabond, honest man or rascal,
lawless murderer or martyr to duty.

Thus it is doubly difficult to write of this period calmly, so
intense was the feeling, so mighty the human passions, that swayed
and blinded men. Amid it all two figures ever stand to typify
that day to coming men: the one a gray-haired gentleman, whose
fathers had quit themselves like men, whose sons lay in nameless
graves, who bowed to the evil of slavery because its abolition
boded untold ill to all; who stood at last, in the evening of
life, a blighted, ruined form, with hate in his eyes. And the
other, a form hovering dark and mother-like, her awful face black
with the mists of centuries, had aforetime bent in love over her
white master's cradle, rocked his sons and daughters to sleep, and
closed in death the sunken eyes of his wife to the world; ay, too,
had laid herself low to his lust and borne a tawny man child to
the world, only to see her dark boy's limbs scattered to the winds
by midnight marauders riding after Damned Niggers. These were the
saddest sights of that woeful day; and no man clasped the hands of
these two passing figures of the present-past; but hating they
went to their long home, and hating their children's children live
to-day.

Here, then, was the field of work for the Freedmen's Bureau; and
since, with some hesitation, it was continued by the act of 1868
till 1869, let us look upon four years of its work as a whole.
There were, in 1868, 900 Bureau officials scattered from
Washington to Texas, ruling, directly and indirectly, many
millions of men. And the deeds of these rulers fall mainly under
seven heads,--the relief of physical suffering, the overseeing of
the beginnings of free labor, the buying and selling of land, the
establishment of schools, the paying of bounties, the
administration of justice, and the financiering of all these
activities. Up to June, 1869, over half a million patients had
been treated by Bureau physicians and surgeons, and sixty
hospitals and asylums had been in operation. In fifty months of
work 21,000,000 free rations were distributed at a cost of over
$4,000,000,--beginning at the rate of 30,000 rations a day in
1865, and discontinuing in 1869. Next came the difficult question
of labor. First, 30,000 black men were transported from the
refuges and relief stations back to the farms, back to the
critical trial of a new way of working. Plain, simple
instructions went out from Washington,--the freedom of laborers to
choose employers, no fixed rates of wages, no peonage or forced
labor. So far so good; but where local agents differed toto coelo
in capacity and character, where the personnel was continually
changing, the outcome was varied. The largest element of success
lay in the fact that the majority of the freedmen were willing,
often eager, to work. So contracts were written,--50,000 in a
single state,--laborers advised, wages guaranteed, and employers
supplied. In truth, the organization became a vast labor bureau;
not perfect, indeed,--notably defective here and there,--but on
the whole, considering the situation, successful beyond the dreams
of thoughtful men. The two great obstacles which confronted the
officers at every turn were the tyrant and the idler: the
slaveholder, who believed slavery was right, and was determined to
perpetuate it under another name; and the freedman, who regarded
freedom as perpetual rest. These were the Devil and the Deep Sea.

In the work of establishing the Negroes as peasant proprietors the
Bureau was severely handicapped, as I have shown. Nevertheless,
something was done. Abandoned lands were leased so long as they
remained in the hands of the Bureau, and a total revenue of
$400,000 derived from black tenants. Some other lands to which
the nation had gained title were sold, and public lands were
opened for the settlement of the few blacks who had tools and
capital. The vision of landowning, however, the righteous and
reasonable ambition for forty acres and a mule which filled the
freedmen's dreams, was doomed in most cases to disappointment.
And those men of marvelous hind-sight, who to-day are seeking to
preach the Negro back to the soil, know well, or ought to know,
that it was here, in 1865, that the finest opportunity of binding
the black peasant to the soil was lost. Yet, with help and
striving, the Negro gained some land, and by 1874, in the one
state of Georgia, owned near 350,000 acres.

The greatest success of the Freedmen's Bureau lay in the planting
of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary
education among all classes in the South. It not only called the
schoolmistress through the benevolent agencies, and built them
schoolhouses, but it helped discover and support such apostles of
human development as Edmund Ware, Erastus Cravath, and Samuel
Armstrong. State superintendents of education were appointed, and
by 1870 150,000 children were in school. The opposition to Negro
education was bitter in the South, for the South believed an
educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not
wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had,
and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of
dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know.
It was some inkling of this paradox, even in the unquiet days of
the Bureau, that allayed an opposition to human training, which
still to-day lies smouldering, but not flaming. Fisk, Atlanta,
Howard, and Hampton were founded in these days, and nearly
$6,000,000 was expended in five years for educational work,
$750,000 of which came from the freedmen themselves.

Such contributions, together with the buying of land and various
other enterprises, showed that the ex-slave was handling some free
capital already. The chief initial source of this was labor in
the army, and his pay and bounty as a soldier. Payments to Negro
soldiers were at first complicated by the ignorance of the
recipients, and the fact that the quotas of colored regiments from
Northern states were largely filled by recruits from the South,
unknown to their fellow soldiers. Consequently, payments were
accompanied by such frauds that Congress, by joint resolution in
1867, put the whole matter in the hands of the Freedmen's Bureau.
In two years $6,000,000 was thus distributed to 5000 claimants,
and in the end the sum exceeded $8,000,000. Even in this system,
fraud was frequent; but still the work put needed capital in the
hands of practical paupers, and some, at least, was well spent.

The most perplexing and least successful part of the Bureau's work
lay in the exercise of its judicial functions. In a distracted
land where slavery had hardly fallen, to keep the strong from
wanton abuse of the weak, and the weak from gloating insolently
over the half-shorn strength of the strong, was a thankless,
hopeless task. The former masters of the land were peremptorily
ordered about, seized and imprisoned, and punished over and again,
with scant courtesy from army officers. The former slaves were
intimidated, beaten, raped, and butchered by angry and revengeful
men. Bureau courts tended to become centres simply for punishing
whites, while the regular civil courts tended to become solely
institutions for perpetuating the slavery of blacks. Almost every
law and method ingenuity could devise was employed by the
legislatures to reduce the Negroes to serfdom,--to make them the
slaves of the state, if not of individual owners; while the Bureau
officials too often were found striving to put the "bottom rail on
top," and give the freedmen a power and independence which they
could not yet use. It is all well enough for us of another
generation to wax wise with advice to those who bore the burden in
the heat of the day. It is full easy now to see that the man who
lost home, fortune, and family at a stroke, and saw his land ruled
by "mules and niggers," was really benefited by the passing of
slavery. It is not difficult now to say to the young freedman,
cheated and cuffed about, who has seen his father's head beaten to
a jelly and his own mother namelessly assaulted, that the meek
shall inherit the earth. Above all, nothing is more convenient
than to heap on the Freedmen's Bureau all the evils of that evil
day, and damn it utterly for every mistake and blunder that was
made.

All this is easy, but it is neither sensible nor just. Some one
had blundered, but that was long before Oliver Howard was born;
there was criminal aggression and heedless neglect, but without
some system of control there would have been far more than there
was. Had that control been from within, the Negro would have been
reenslaved, to all intents and purposes. Coming as the control
did from without, perfect men and methods would have bettered all
things; and even with imperfect agents and questionable methods,
the work accomplished was not undeserving of much commendation.
The regular Bureau court consisted of one representative of the
employer, one of the Negro, and one of the Bureau. If the Bureau
could have maintained a perfectly judicial attitude, this
arrangement would have been ideal, and must in time have gained
confidence; but the nature of its other activities and the
character of its personnel prejudiced the Bureau in favor of the
black litigants, and led without doubt to much injustice and
annoyance. On the other hand, to leave the Negro in the hands of
Southern courts was impossible.

What the Freedmen's Bureau cost the nation is difficult to
determine accurately. Its methods of bookkeeping were not good,
and the whole system of its work and records partook of the hurry
and turmoil of the time. General Howard himself disbursed some
$15,000,000 during his incumbency; but this includes the bounties
paid colored soldiers, which perhaps should not be counted as an
expense of the Bureau. In bounties, prize money, and all other
expenses, the Bureau disbursed over $20,000,000 before all of its
departments were finally closed. To this ought to be added the
large expenses of the various departments of Negro affairs before
1865; but these are hardly extricable from war expenditures, nor
can we estimate with any accuracy the contributions of benevolent
societies during all these years.


Such was the work of the Freedmen's Bureau. To sum it up in
brief, we may say: it set going a system of free labor; it
established the black peasant proprietor; it secured the
recognition of black freemen before courts of law; it founded the
free public school in the South. On the other hand, it failed to
establish good will between ex-masters and freedmen; to guard its
work wholly from paternalistic methods that discouraged self-
reliance; to make Negroes landholders in any considerable numbers.
Its successes were the result of hard work, supplemented by the
aid of philanthropists and the eager striving of black men. Its
failures were the result of bad local agents, inherent
difficulties of the work, and national neglect. The Freedmen's
Bureau expired by limitation in 1869, save its educational and
bounty departments. The educational work came to an end in 1872,
and General Howard's connection with the Bureau ceased at that
time. The work of paying bounties was transferred to the adjutant
general's office, where it was continued three or four years
longer.

Such an institution, from its wide powers, great responsibilities,
large control of moneys, and generally conspicuous position, was
naturally open to repeated and bitter attacks. It sustained a
searching congressional investigation at the instance of Fernando
Wood in 1870. It was, with blunt discourtesy, transferred from
Howard's control, in his absence, to the supervision of Secretary
of War Belknap in 1872, on the Secretary's recommendation.
Finally, in consequence of grave intimations of wrongdoing made by
the Secretary and his subordinates, General Howard was court-
martialed in 1874. In each of these trials, and in other attacks,
the commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau was exonerated from any
willful misdoing, and his work heartily commended. Nevertheless,
many unpleasant things were brought to light: the methods of
transacting the business of the Bureau were faulty; several cases
of defalcation among officials in the field were proven, and
further frauds hinted at; there were some business transactions
which savored of dangerous speculation, if not dishonesty; and,
above all, the smirch of the Freedmen's Bank, which, while legally
distinct from, was morally and practically a part of the Bureau,
will ever blacken the record of this great institution. Not even
ten additional years of slavery could have done as much to
throttle the thrift of the freedmen as the mismanagement and
bankruptcy of the savings bank chartered by the nation for their
especial aid. Yet it is but fair to say that the perfect honesty
of purpose and unselfish devotion of General Howard have passed
untarnished through the fire of criticism. Not so with all his
subordinates, although in the case of the great majority of these
there were shown bravery and devotion to duty, even though
sometimes linked to narrowness and incompetency.

The most bitter attacks on the Freedmen's Bureau were aimed not so
much at its conduct or policy under the law as at the necessity
for any such organization at all. Such attacks came naturally
from the border states and the South, and they were summed up by
Senator Davis, of Kentucky, when he moved to entitle the act of
1866 a bill "to promote strife and conflict between the white and
black races . . . by a grant of unconstitutional power." The
argument was of tremendous strength, but its very strength was its
weakness. For, argued the plain common sense of the nation, if it
is unconstitutional, unpracticable, and futile for the nation to
stand guardian over its helpless wards, then there is left but one
alternative: to make those wards their own guardians by arming
them with the ballot. The alternative offered the nation then was
not between full and restricted Negro suffrage; else every
sensible man, black and white, would easily have chosen the
latter. It was rather a choice between suffrage and slavery,
after endless blood and gold had flowed to sweep human bondage
away. Not a single Southern legislature stood ready to admit a
Negro, under any conditions, to the polls; not a single Southern
legislature believed free Negro labor was possible without a
system of restrictions that took all its freedom away; there was
scarcely a white man in the South who did not honestly regard
emancipation as a crime, and its practical nullification as a
duty. In such a situation, the granting of the ballot to the
black man was a necessity, the very least a guilty nation could
grant a wronged race. Had the opposition to government
guardianship of Negroes been less bitter, and the attachment to
the slave system less strong, the social seer can well imagine a
far better policy: a permanent Freedmen's Bureau, with a national
system of Negro schools; a carefully supervised employment and
labor office; a system of impartial protection before the regular
courts; and such institutions for social betterment as savings
banks, land and building associations, and social settlements.
All this vast expenditure of money and brains might have formed a
great school of prospective citizenship, and solved in a way we
have not yet solved the most perplexing and persistent of the
Negro problems.

That such an institution was unthinkable in 1870 was due in part
to certain acts of the Freedmen's Bureau itself. It came to
regard its work as merely temporary, and Negro suffrage as a final
answer to all present perplexities. The political ambition of
many of its agents and proteges led it far afield into
questionable activities, until the South, nursing its own deep
prejudices, came easily to ignore all the good deeds of the
Bureau, and hate its very name with perfect hatred. So the
Freedmen's Bureau died, and its child was the Fifteenth Amendment.

The passing of a great human institution before its work is done,
like the untimely passing of a single soul, but leaves a legacy of
striving for other men. The legacy of the Freedmen's Bureau is
the heavy heritage of this generation. Today, when new and vaster
problems are destined to strain every fibre of the national mind
and soul, would it not be well to count this legacy honestly and
carefully? For this much all men know: despite compromise,
struggle, war, and struggle, the Negro is not free. In the
backwoods of the Gulf states, for miles and miles, he may not
leave the plantation of his birth; in well-nigh the whole rural
South the black farmers are peons, bound by law and custom to an
economic slavery, from which the only escape is death or the
penitentiary. In the most cultured sections and cities of the
South the Negroes are a segregated servile caste, with restricted
rights and privileges. Before the courts, both in law and custom,
they stand on a different and peculiar basis. Taxation without
representation is the rule of their political life. And the
result of all this is, and in nature must have been, lawlessness
and crime. That is the large legacy of the Freedmen's Bureau, the
work it did not do because it could not.


I have seen a land right merry with the sun; where children sing,
and rolling hills lie like passioned women, wanton with harvest.
And there in the King's Highway sat and sits a figure, veiled and
bowed, by which the traveler's footsteps hasten as they go. On
the tainted air broods fear. Three centuries' thought has been
the raising and unveiling of that bowed human heart, and now,
behold, my fellows, a century new for the duty and the deed. The
problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.





Next: OF THE TRAINING OF BLACK MEN

Previous: THE MARCH OF PROGRESS



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