African Americans in the Post–Civil War Era

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What was the impact and influence of the Freedmen's Bureau?

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The Freedmen's Bureau was established during the Civil War by the United States government to deal with the challenges faced by the hundreds of thousands of former slaves in the South. It was really unprecedented at the federal level. Freedmen's Bureau workers, who included former Union soldiers, Northern teachers, lawyers, and many others, attempted to help freed people in a number of ways. They set up schools, hospitals, and even, in some cases, houses for African-Americans (and some poor whites) dislocated by the war. They helped freedmen negotiate labor and sharecropping contracts with white landowners, and tried to ensure that former slaves received fair prices on land purchases. The Bureau also attempted to help black men and women find their families, many of which had been separated by sale or by the war itself. There had never been a relief organization like the Freedmen's Bureau at the federal level, and many argued that it exceeded the constitutional authority of Congress. President Andrew Johnson vetoed it in 1868, and a Republican-dominated Congress overrode his veto. Eventually the Bureau died out, and it was no longer existent in 1872.

Its long-term legacy is complex. On the one hand, the Bureau failed to promote the kinds of structural economic reforms (i.e. confiscation of plantations and distribution of lands to former slaves) that the South's newly freed people desperately needed. The Bureau operated on the assumption that black men, as free laborers, would be best suited as farm workers, often on the same lands, and for the same people, they had served before the war. But the Freedmen's Bureau also set up many schools and universities that would be centers of African-American culture even during the depths of Jim Crow. It helped thousands of people who otherwise might have starved in the wake of the war. And it demonstrated, if only temporarily, that the federal government bore some obligation to the people it had freed by destroying the Confederacy.

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