The US Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established in March 1865 to facilitate a free labor economy, found an educational system, provide health care for newly freed slaves, and mediate conflicts between blacks and whites and between Unionists and former Confederates. The bureau’s commissioner, Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, and agents faced the monumental task of mending social rifts following centuries of slavery and a bloody war.
In June 1865 the Mississippi Freedmen’s Bureau issued regulations regarding fair labor contracts between employers and newly freed African Americans. The bureau sought to encourage negotiations between the two parties, with bureau agents advising the former slaves. Policies promoted by Col. Samuel Thomas, the assistant commissioner of the Mississippi Bureau, included share tenancy, in which lands would be leased to former bondspersons in return for the crop and these workers assured a “share” of the property if employers failed to pay wages. Thomas believed that such an economy would enable former slaves to obtain the capital necessary to become independent, and they likely expected that their situations would gradually improve. Thomas’s successors, Thomas J. Wood and Alvan Gillem, promoted sharecropping as a means to make freedpeople ineligible for government aid. Agents of the Mississippi Bureau felt that promoting free labor would ensure economic equality, but the sharecropping system was in some ways akin to slavery.
The bureau was understaffed, with only twelve agents serving the entire state in 1866. In Mississippi, as in all of the former Confederate states, violence was often employed to intimidate freedpeople. In Amite County, men with blacked faces often flogged freedpeople. At least thirty black men and women were killed in an 1871 riot in Meridian following the arrest of three black leaders. Because the Union Army rapidly demobilized following the war, the bureau told black victims of violence that they must find protection through local and federal institutions, often an impossible task.
Education was central to the bureau’s aims, and several southern black colleges were founded to educate teachers for newly opened black schools. Among those institutions was Jackson’s Tougaloo College, which was opened by the American Missionary Association in 1869.
The Mississippi Freedmen’s Bureau also focused on health care, as smallpox, yellow fever, and cholera were rampant in the postwar years. Hospitals were built in Vicksburg and Natchez in 1870. However, treatment for mentally ill freedpeople was grossly inadequate, and many were jailed because of the lack of facilities.
Pres. Andrew Johnson’s June 1865 restoration of former plantation owners’ property displaced many freedpeople. A ten-thousand-acre plantation in Davis Bend held by the bureau was restored to the prior owner, Jefferson Davis, and those living there were evicted. In Natchez, Thomas, a proponent of ownership of lands by former slaves, saw his hopes for redistribution end with Johnson’s program of amnesty.
Some scholars have argued that the Mississippi Bureau did not adequately challenge the implementation of the Black Codes in 1865. For example, one regulation permitted orphaned African American children to be apprenticed to white planters under conditions that resembled those under slavery, but according to some reports, planters kidnapped children. Nancy Bercaw notes that apprenticeship “ignored black household and community structures” in which grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, or close friends would informally adopt children whose parents had died.
The Mississippi Bureau undoubtedly improved the lives of many freedpeople; however, extreme challenges and limited resources meant that officials continually had no choice but to compromise in their efforts to provide aid. Congress dissolved the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872.
- Nancy Bercaw, Gendered Freedoms: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Household in the Delta, 1861–1875 (2003)
- Ronald L. F. Davis, Good and Faithful Labor: From Slavery to Sharecropping in the Natchez District, 1860–1890 (1982)
- Eric Foner, Nothing but Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy (1983)
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988)
- Donald G. Nieman, Journal of Mississippi History (May 1978)
- Dale Edwyna Smith, The Slaves of Liberty: Freedom in Amite County, Mississippi, 1820–1868 (1999)
- Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi,1865–1890 (1947)