The Freedman Bureau, established immediately after the end of the Civil War, is an example of how trying to legislate away hatred and bitterness very rarely works. This is especially true when the legislation is combatting engrained animosity and a socio-economic system based on both a master slave environment combined with a caste system. The goals of the Freedman Bureau were noble; “The Bureau was authorized to distribute much-needed food, fuel, clothing, and medical supplies to the freedmen; to regulate labor and contracts; to aid in the founding of schools and churches; to ensure justice in all legal cases involving freedmen…”1. The reports of Bureau Agent Thomas P. Jackson, detail how these lofty goals became goals often left unmet; for several reasons each of which affected the situation of the individuals or groups involved. The local doctor, S.C. Harris offered his services, but due to a lack of funds and supplies was often unable to prescribe the needed medications.
The former rich landowners, the power brokers in Virginia, were desperate to regain their land and with their land their economic power. The poor whites, suddenly faced with competition for jobs began to overtly resent and resist the newly freed people. The freed people themselves, with little or no education were suddenly thrust into a competition with others for what were essentially the scraps. These individuals were destined to clash with both the authorities and each other.
English native Thomas P. Jackson who served as the Bureau Agent from April 1867 to March 1868 appears to be woefully unprepared and ill-equipped to navigate the obstacles he encountered and the bureaucracy he was a part of. His initial request for more funds for Dr. Harris, “I therefore on behalf of many sufferers, some sick of typhoid fever, ask an appropriation of Twenty five ($25) per month” 2 displays an almost naive belief that government officials actually cared about the health and well-being of the people. Within a month Mr. Jackson realizes that the medical situation will not change, “I regret much that Dr. Harris informs me this morning he cannot afford his services and medicine longer, without remuneration sufficient to pay for the latter. ”3 The doctor was not the only one having trouble being paid for his labor. Employers began to take advantage of the lack of education of the freed people and soon after they started contracting with the freed people, they realized that there were no way the contracts could be enforced and thus they were able to cheat the workers out of their just earnings. In his September 30, 1867 report, Mr. Jackson writes, “…many employers are not disposed to treat with entire fairness the laborers they hire. This is becoming more apparent as engagements for the crop season or year come to a close, and disputes arise (now frequent) on the settlement .” 4 The freed people had little or no means of surviving without taking whatever they can receive from the employers. Again, in his September 30th report Mr. Jackson writes, “When I ask the question, why did you take all these goods or orders when your contract calls for money, the common answer is ‘I could not get money and my family had to eat and be clothed.’” 5 Trying to survive on a subsistence level only, proved almost impossible for many and as a result, there was rampant poverty and it left many of the sick, the widows, or otherwise deserted, destitute. 6 This downturn in the overall vitality and health of the community set the stage for a transition in which the landowners and former leaders of the state began to take back power and attempted to undo the new societal order.
In fact, the conservatives, (those who want to return to the old order) seek to overturn the new state constitution and pressure former slaves, who now have the vote to vote as the landowners’ desire. The pressure that was imposed had little success because as Mr. Jackson writes, in his January 31, 1868 report; “…but so far no impression has been made upon the masses of colored voters, who see now quite clearly that the success of the conservatives will result in depriving them of all privileges of freedom.” 7 While Mr. Jackson is initially optimistic about the relationship between the white and black population, the reality of the situation becomes more and more apparent when he writes in his November 30, 1887 report, “Four [deleted: attempts] attacks with pistols have been made during this month by white men upon Freed people..” The situation continues to deteriorate and Mr. Jackson goes on to report, that the freed people are becoming more unfriendly towards the white population. 8 This racial animosity is exacerbated by the fact that, as Mr. Jackson writes in March 24, 1868, “The pernicious teachings of the conservative leaders and press have unbounded effect on ignorant whites, who look upon the freedmen with contempt and hate and do not hesitate to use violence where their leaders use abusive language.” 9 The ultimate truth of how the white population felt is seen most clearly in the quote of a Justice Huff when he is overheard saying, “”the d….d n…..s ought all to be driven out of the county” 10 This racial animosity lingered for at least a century and in many cases it still lingers today.
It is easy to see that the Freedman Bureau, while in some part was a well-intentioned program; it had little or no chance of success. Even with the good intentions of people such as Mr. Jackson, Doctor Harris, and others, once those who had led the southern rebellion returned to positions of political power it was doomed. When poor whites realized they were in competition with the recently freed slaves for the meager work that was available, there was bound to be resentment. This resentment was used by the powerful in the county to undermine any positive results that might have been achieved. The failure of the government to fund and enforce the regulations of the program insured that this phase of reconstruction would forever be known as an abject failure.
1. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: About the Bureau, http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/VoS/fbureau/aboutbureau.html
2. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: Thomas P. Jackson to Garrick Mallery, May 1, 1867 http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1011
3. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: Thomas P. Jackson to Garrick Mallery, June 3, 1867 http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1012
4. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: Thomas P. Jackson to Garrick Mallery, September 30, 1867 http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1016
6. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: Thomas P. Jackson to Orlando Brown, February 29, 1868 http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1021
7. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: Thomas P. Jackson to Orlando Brown, January 31, 1868 http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1020
8. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: Thomas P. Jackson to Orlando Brown, November 30, 1867 http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1018
9. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: Thomas P. Jackson to Orlando Brown, March 24, 1868 http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1022
10. Freedmen’s Bureau Records: Thomas P. Jackson to Orlando Brown, December 31, 1867 http://valley.lib.virginia.edu/papers/B1019