This Day in History

March 3, 1865: Freedmen’s Bureau Established

Time Periods: Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1876
Themes: African American, Reconstruction, Democracy & Citizenship, Laws & Citizen Rights, Slavery and Resistance
Freedmen's Bureau | Zinn Education Project

Land Order, April 1, 1865 . . . permission is hereby granted to Richard Brown to take possession of and occupy forty acres of land, situated in St. Andrews Parish, Island of James. Source: National Archives. Click image to see this and more primary documents.

On March 3, 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was established. As explained by the National Archives:

The Bureau was established in the War Department in 1865 to undertake the relief effort and the unprecedented social reconstruction that would bring freedpeople to full citizenship.

It issued food and clothing, operated hospitals and temporary camps, helped locate family members, promoted education, helped freedpeople legalize marriages, provided employment, supervised labor contracts, provided legal representation, investigated racial confrontations, settled freedpeople on abandoned or confiscated lands, and worked with African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments, and pensions.

Imagine if everyone who was freed from centuries of bondage — and whose wisdom, skills, and labor had stolen — had been compensated as Richard Brown was promised in this document to “take possession of and occupy forty acres of land, situated in St. Andrews Parish, Island of James.” (Of the land that was distributed to people freed from slavery, most was returned to the ex-Confederates, despite the improvements made to land by the freed people and their moral right to claim it.)

The Freedmen’s Bureau was disbanded in 1872. This was hardly enough time, especially given its limited resources and the major obstacles it faced, to address all the tasks described above for the 3.9 million people freed from generations of slavery that dated back 250 years. In addition the Bureau was supposed to help poor whites in the South.

Below are classroom resources for teaching about the all too brief and often overlooked history of the Reconstruction era.