The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, two months before Confederate General Robert Lee (1807-70) surrendered to the Union’s Ulysses Grant (1822-85) at Appomattox Court House, Virginia, effectively ending the Civil War. Intended as a temporary agency to last the duration of the war and one year afterward, the bureau was placed under the authority of the War Department and the majority of its original employees were Civil War soldiers.
During its years of operation, the Freedmen’s Bureau fed millions of people, built hospitals and provided medical aid, negotiated labor contracts for ex-slaves and settled labor disputes. It also helped former slaves legalize marriages and locate lost relatives, and assisted black veterans.
Despite the untimely dissolution of the Freedman’s Bureau, its legacy influenced the important historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which were the chief institutions of higher learning for blacks in the South through the decades of segregation into the mid-20th century. Under the direction and sponsorship of the Bureau, together with the American Missionary Association in many cases, from approximately 1866 until its termination in 1872, an estimated 25 institutions of higher learning for black youth were established. The leaders among them continue to operate as highly ranked institutions in the 21st century. Examples include Hampton University, St. Augustine’s College, Fisk University, Johnson C. Smith University, Clark Atlanta University, Dillard University, Shaw University, Virginia Union University, Tougaloo College and Howard University.
Additionally, the bureau tried, with little success, to promote land redistribution. However, most of the confiscated or abandoned Confederate land was eventually restored to the original owners, so there was little opportunity for black land ownership, which was seen as a means to success in society.
In the summer of 1872, Congress, responding in part to pressure from white Southerners, dismantled the Freedmen’s Bureau.