Authored by Victoria Santamorena
On February 22, 1867, First Lieutenant and General Superintendent of Education in New Orleans, F. R. Chase, wrote to Captain William H. Sterling, the acting Adjunct General, reporting on difficulties in the Educational Department, which was overseen by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (the Freedmen’s Bureau). Chase’s letter complains of one of the department’s agents, A. D. McCoy, who had a tendency to overstep the bounds of his position. McCoy claimed authority over the district’s schools and the teachers appointed to them. However, the Superintendent or the Assistant Commissioner were responsible for these duties (Trudeau 1978, 2-3). Complicating matters, McCoy was a former Confederate and seemed to value religious preaching above his obligations as an educator.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, created by an act of Congress in March of 1865, supervised reconstruction efforts in post-war Southern States by managing economic, political, and social programs to help formerly enslaved people and white Southern refugees (National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) n.d.; National Archives 2021). The Freedmen’s Bureau was Considered one of the first social welfare agencies in the United States (Cimbala 2003, XIII), and one of its most significant activities during Reconstruction was establishing schools for African Americans in the southern states (Schwartzberg 2020).
The Bureau’s operations produced millions of documents, which “contain a wide range of data about the African American experience during slavery and Reconstruction” (National Archives 2021). These archival documents are important in keeping African American history alive, and they also reveal the many challenges the Freedmen’s Bureau faced in effecting positive change (Cimbala 2003, XIV).
Difficulty securing funding, white opposition to Bureau efforts, and the Bureau’s complicated hierarchical structure hindered operations (Schwartzberg 2020; Smith 2000). White residents in Louisiana opposed taxes to fund schools for formerly enslaved people, leaving Black residents to cover the cost (Schwartzberg 2020; Trudeau 1978). High turnover in the Freedmen’s Bureau also meant that many important projects were abandoned when the War Department ceased operations ceased in 1869 (Smith 2000).
Documents like Chase’s letter highlight the importance of the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project through the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Smithsonian Transcription Center.Through keyword searchable, transcribed documents, “familyhistorians, genealogists, students, and scholars around the world will have online access to these records” (NMAAHC n.d., under “Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project”). Easier access to these documents will “increase understanding of the post-Civil War era and our knowledge of post-Emancipation family life” (NMAAHC n.d., under “Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project”), bringing to light forgotten histories. By making these documents more freely available, the museum and the Smithsonian Institute speak to the Vincentian perspective: providing equitable access to knowledge and learning and promoting the truth (St. John’s University 2015), even if that truth can reveal past failures or shortcomings of trusted institutions.
Cimbala, Paul A. 2003. Under the Guardianship of the Nation: The Freedmen’s Bureau and the Reconstruction of Georgia, 1865-1870. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
National Archives. 2021. “The Freedmen’s Bureau.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration. Updated October 28, 2021. https://www.archives.gov/research/african-americans/freedmens-bureau
National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). n.d. “Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project.” National Museum of African American History and Culture. Accessed February 20, 2022. https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/initiatives/freedmens-bureau-records
Schwartzberg, Jenny. 2020. “1860s Field Reports Reveal the Hardships in Establishing African American Education.” The Historic New Orleans Collection. Published February 12, 2020. https://www.hnoc.org/publications/first-draft/1860s-field-reports-reveal-hardships-establishing-african-american#:~:text=The%20Freedmen’s%20Bureau%20had%20originally,already%20impoverished%20populace%2C%20agents%20observed
Smith, Solomon K. 2000. “The Freedmen’s Bureau in Shreveport: The Struggle for Control of the Red River District.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 41, no. 4 (2000): 435–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4233699.
St. John’s University. 2015. “Our Mission.” October 2015. https://www.stjohns.edu/about/history-and-facts/our-mission
Trudeau, Thomas A. 1978. “Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of Louisiana, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1864-1869.” Washington, D.C.: National Archives Microfilm Publications. https://www.archives.gov/files/research/microfilm/m1026.pdf