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Published: June 25, 2011

Freedmen’s Bureau

An agency created by an act of Congress in 1865 to provide a variety of assistance to needy blacks in the South after the Civil War. Officially called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, the bureau was established within the U.S. War Department, which governed the South during Reconstruction. With most former slaves left destitute and flocking by the thousands to Union army bases for help, the bureau’s initial responsibility was to provide food, clothing and medical supplies. It then undertook the task of teaching literacy and numeration and eventually was responsible for establishing a system of free public schools for blacks throughout the South and staffing them with white teachers usually from the North. Prior to the Civil War, southern states had made it a crime, punishable by fines and imprisonment, to teach blacks to read. The bureau also founded such institutions of higher education as ATLANTA, Fisk and HOWARD UNIVERSITIES.
In addition to its role in establishing public schools for former slaves, the bureau also regulated wages and working conditions of blacks throughout the South, handled legal trials involving blacks, and controlled and distributed confiscated southern properties. Except for its educational program, which lasted until 1872, most of the bureau’s activities ended in 1869, when, to the disappointment of blacks, it returned most confiscated lands to their former owners.