Freedmen's Bureau

Even before the Civil War ended, President Abraham Lincoln and Congress realized that the government must offer assistance to newly emancipated slaves. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, attempted this task and functioned under the direction of the War Department. After much debate about the duties and scope of the agency, Congress passed a bill authorizing the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau on March 3, 1865, and President Lincoln signed the bill the same day. Initially, the bill specified that the bureau would expire one year after the termination of the war. President Andrew Johnson, fearful of creating a dependent class of white and blacks, vetoed a bill to renew the bureau in 1866. Congress overrode the veto, however, and prolonged its life until the summer of 1872.

President Lincoln was assassinated before he could appoint a commissioner to direct the bureau. Notified of Lincoln's choice for the post, President Johnson agreed to follow his predecessor's wish and tapped Major General Oliver Otis Howard. To aid Howard, ten assistant commissioners directed agency work at the state and local level.

Howard designated Brigadier General Clinton B. Fisk to serve as the first assistant commissioner of the Tennessee, Kentucky, and Northern Alabama branch of the bureau. By June 1866 Kentucky no longer fell under the same jurisdiction as Tennessee. Fisk arrived in Nashville in July 1865 and organized the state into three districts: Nashville, Memphis, and Chattanooga. Two years later, Pulaski and Knoxville emerged as sub-districts.

Fisk's zealous execution of duties incensed some Tennessee legislators, particularly his efforts to introduce black testimony in courts. Operating under the guidance of federal law, Fisk created bureau courts to guarantee the freedmen civil equality. Outraged by this bold, independent action, the Tennessee General Assembly in January 1866 deliberately passed a bill permitting black testimony, thereby placing the freedmen under the authority of state courts.

Howard considered education a key to the future advancement of the ex-slaves, and the bureau established a number of freedmen's schools. Attendance at the schools soared as freedmen of all ages flocked to cramped buildings to learn basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills. Violent acts such as the burning of schools and vicious threats against teachers and students flared after the Memphis riots of May 1-3, 1866, and tested the dedication of the freedmen and their instructors. Courageous blacks continued to enroll, and the vast number of eager pupils required more teachers. In January 1866, assisted by the American Missionary Association and the Western Freedmen's Aid Commission, Fisk organized a school in Nashville. The next year, this school became Fisk University and offered a program to train black teachers for the freedmen's schools.

In addition to managing schools, the bureau negotiated labor contracts between the ex-slaves and white employers and even furnished legal counsel. The bureau also organized hospitals, orphanages, and elderly homes. Whites in Tennessee, particularly in the middle and western parts of the state, vigorously opposed the goals of the Freedmen's Bureau. White animus stemmed from a belief that the freedmen's schools functioned as incubators of Radical Republicanism. In some areas of the state, the Ku Klux Klan frightened black residents and galvanized the whites by publicizing the bureau's efforts to achieve black suffrage and involve the freedmen in politics.

Fisk's tenure ended on September 1, 1866, and General J. R. Lewis, who had fulfilled the duties of assistant commissioner in Middle Tennessee, held the post as an interim. After three months, Major General W. P. Carlin took the helm. By the time he accepted the office, the bureau's primary responsibility involved schools for the freedmen; when the state assumed the management of the black schools in February 1867, the activity of the bureau diminished until it was gradually phased out by Brevet-Major L. N. Clark in 1869. The Freedmen's Bureau in Tennessee shepherded the state's blacks on the journey from slavery to freedom by providing education, lobbying for political equality, and meeting physical needs.

Suggested Reading

Weymouth T. Jordan, “The Freedmens Bureau in Tennessee,” East Tennessee Historical Society Publications 11 (1939): 47-61; Paul D. Phillips, “Education of Blacks in Tennessee During Reconstruction, 1865-1870,” Tennessee Historical Quarterly 46 (1987): 98-109 and “White Reaction to the Freedmens Bureau in Tennessee,” ibid., 25 (1966): 50-62

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Freedmen's Bureau
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date July 14, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018