The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established by the U.S. government in March 1865 as the Civil War was coming to a close, to help the almost 4 million former slaves begin their new lives. The new Bureau's assignment was immense: provide food, clothing and health care to former slaves, negotiate employment contracts, and establish schools. The agency was formally disbanded in June 1872.
The successes and failures of the Freedmen's Bureau have been debated ever since. The intent was noble: help newly freed slaves. However, it was plagued with corruption as well as with indifferent or even hostile politicians. President Andrew Johnson tried to eliminate it after its first year but was thwarted by Congress. Regardless of its triumphs and failures, the Freedmen's Bureau generated a lot of paperwork containing many valuable details about the lives of Black Americans before and after the Civil War.
The papers contain personal details that are found in diaries or tax records, such as the complete names of the slaves and freedmen, their owners' names, and locations of various individuals. Some of the records tell a bleak, often violent, story. Hospital files describe disease, poverty, and death. The letters looking for family members underscore the brutal impact of slavery on the black family. There are bright elements as well. The appeal for schools and funds show how education was viewed as an essential way for self-improvement.
One of the bureau's tasks was issuing marriage certificates for couples. For example, John and Emily Pointer asked the bureau for a certificate in 1866 to show they were legally married. They had been living together as spouses since 1844, and the paper listed their eight children: Nellie, Robert Amos, Malinda, Elyza, John, Richard, Robert and Emma. Documents such as this are invaluable to genealogists, especially as the information often is not available elsewhere.
The Freedmen's Bureau records have been accessible only to scholars and a few others since the National Archives and Records Administration received them in the 1940s. The papers, gathered from dozens of local offices of the Bureau, were disorganized, and some were just too fragile to handle. A project to microfilm these valuable records is now underway. The project is the task of a multidisciplinary team within the Archives, coordinated by the agency's Civil War Conservation Corps. Congress provided $3 million.
On Friday, January 20, at 7:00 PM, the National Archives' Afro-American History Society and the Center for the National Archives Experience will present a 60-minute panel discussion focusing on the historic importance of the Freedmen's Bureau records and the impact of their accessibility on history. Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will moderate the panel of notable academics, including Leslie Rowland, University of Maryland; Edward Ayers, University of Virginia; Andrew Torget, University of Virginia; and Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States . An additional 30 minutes will be devoted to questions from the audience.
The panel discussion will be held in the McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building in Washington D.C. and can be reached through the Constitution Avenue entrance.