Freedwomen and the Freedmen's Bureau: Race, Gender, and Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation

Freedwomen and the Freedmen's Bureau: Race, Gender, and Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation

Freedwomen and the Freedmen's Bureau: Race, Gender, and Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation

Freedwomen and the Freedmen's Bureau: Race, Gender, and Public Policy in the Age of Emancipation

Excerpt

Not long after the Civil War's end, a “poor colored woman,” as Freed men's Bureau commissioner Major General Oliver Otis Howard would later remember the former slave, made her way to the offices of the War Department in Washington, D.C. Once there, she sought every bit of the freedom that her recent emancipation promised. Having heard about a “bureau” being created for freedpeople as the Civil War ended, she requested one for herself. Telling federal officials in the nation's capital that “she had been a long time in want of a bureau” and that “she understood that there was one there waiting for her,” the freedwoman attempted to take advantage of the federal government's generosity—or perhaps to carry away what she believed was her just due for years of work as a slave—by claiming this much-desired bequest.

Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—more commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau—in March 1865. And while it would not provide former slaves with the dressing table this freedwoman wanted, the new bureau did accomplish a great deal before being officially dismantled in 1872. Upon its creation, the short-lived and unprecedented federal agency assumed the Herculean task of overseeing the transition from slavery to freedom in the immediate postemancipation South. It became the embodiment of the triumphant North in a defeated South, and its agents the very face of federal authority. The job of the men who served its ranks was, as Georgia freedwoman Susan McIntosh put it some years later, “to get things to going smooth after the war.” And even as it would fail at this formidable charge, the bureau stood at the center of Reconstruction and played a critical role in shaping how more than four million men, women, and children defined and enjoyed their lives and labors as freedpeople.

Although known to contemporaries and historians alike as the Freedmen's Bureau—and thus an agency interested most in instructing black men, rather than black women, in the transition from slave to citizen—this bureau profoundly affected the lives of African American women in the age of emancipation. In its efforts to transform the South and define freedom, the federal . . .

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