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The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans

[ African American Studies ]

The Freedmen's Bureau and Black Texans

By Barry A. Crouch

Drawing on a wealth of previously unused documentation in the National Archives, this book offers new insights into the workings of the Freedmen's Bureau and the difficulties faced by Texas Bureau officials, who served in a remote and somewhat isolated area with little support from headquarters.

1992

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 215 pp. | 11 b&w illustrations

ISBN: 978-0-292-71219-5

Drawing on a wealth of previously unused documentation in the National Archives, this book offers new insights into the workings of the Freedmen's Bureau and the difficulties faced by Texas Bureau officials, who served in a remote and somewhat isolated area with little support from headquarters.

  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Freedmen's Bureau in Texas: A Historiographical Appraisal
  • 2. The Texas Assistant Commissioners: Labor, Justice, Education, and Violence under the Bureau
  • 3. The Texas Bureau in Microcosm: The Thirtieth Subdistrict During Reconstruction
  • 4. To Die in Boston (Texas, That Is)
  • 5. Reconstructing Brazos County: Race Relations and the Freedmen's Bureau, 1865-1868
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Essay on Sources
  • Index

In 1864 the final report of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission justified the establishment of an interim governmental agency to assist former slaves in their transition from bondage to freedom. "For a time we need a freedmen's bureau, but not because these people are negroes," the commissioners determined, "only because they are men who have been, for generations, despoiled of their rights." Any assistance "given to these people should be regarded as a temporary necessity," and "all supervision over them should be provisional only, and advisory in its character." Essentially, the commissioners contended, the nation should "secure to them the means of making their own way; that we give them, to use the familiar phrase, 'a fair chance.'"

From its inception through most of the twentieth century, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau, has been at the center of many historical and institutional debates. From the commissioner to the assistant commissioners to the local agents, and the implementation of policy, the Bureau has been subjected to wide-ranging and conflicting assessments. J. G. De Roulhac Hamilton realized the problems in analyzing this unique post-Civil War agency when he wrote in 1909 that "no more difficult task can confront the historical investigator than an attempt to form a just estimate of the work, character, and general influence of the Freedmen's Bureau." This dictum still holds true today.

Almost nine decades ago, W E. B. Du Bois fired the opening salvo over how historians would view the creation and operation of the Freedmen's Bureau. In the first modern assessment of the agency from a trained academic perspective, Du Bois perceived the Bureau "as one of the most singular and interesting of the attempts made by a great nation to grapple with vast problems of race and social condition." No "correct history of civilization can ever be written which does not throw out in bold relief, as one of the great landmarks of political and social progress," Du Bois magnanimously concluded, without discussing the "organization and administration of the Freedmen's Bureau." A "great work of social reform," he observed.

Although Du Bois did not have access to the original Bureau records, he became its first astute scholarly observer. Viewing the Bureau as "an attempt to establish a government guardianship over the negroes and insure their economic and civil rights," Du Bois saw its mission as a "herculean task both physically and socially, and it not only met the solid opposition of the white South, but even the North looked at the new thing as socialistic and ever-paternal." The Bureau "accomplished a great task but it was repudiated." Du Bois capsulized the Bureau's image when he wrote that "above all, nothing is more convenient than to heap on the Freedmen's Bureau all the evils of that evil day, and damn it utterly for every mistake and blunder that was made."

After Du Bois, the historical career of the Freedmen's Bureau has been checkered. This anomalous institution has posed, in many ways, an enigma for historians. Damned by white Southerners for unwarranted interference with the former slaves and local folkways, the Bureau is now castigated by historians for not providing more help (or the wrong kind, generally paternalistic) to Southern blacks in the early years of freedom. Within this general circle of condemnation, the Bureau's interpretative fortunes have indeed been mixed, partially depending upon the status of the larger field of which it is a part, Reconstruction history. In no state is this more evident or revisionism more overdue than in Texas, where the Bureau's ordeal continues and is yet unfinished.

Among historians of Texas, the Bureau has not been well served. Generally seen as interfering in state affairs, it has never received a full-scale treatment. Following the negative interpretation of the agency found in the work of Charles W. Ramsdell, other historians accepted his perception until the 1970s. At the time that Ramsdell wrote, Bureau manuscripts were not available, so he apparently selected conservative sources with the idea of showing the Bureau in the worst possible light. Two decades ago, scholars began to do ind-epth research in the Texas Freedmen's Bureau records in the National Archives. This research encouraged additional efforts, and collectively a different perspective has now been cast upon the Bureau's activities.

Whatever the current direction of the history of the Texas Freedmen's Bureau, praise for its efforts has hardly been universal. The Bureau, like many other facets of the Texas Reconstruction era, has been only partially reevaluated in the past two decades. The process has been piecemeal because much of the emphasis in consulting Bureau records has been upon a way to understand the responses of black Texans to freedom. In many of the writings about postwar Texas, the Bureau is a secondary consideration, for little is known about its operations or functions. Continued reliance upon older published works paints an unflattering portrait of what the Bureau attempted to do at all levels of Texas society.

The Bureau papers "provide valuable data on Texans' attitudes and actions toward blacks," writes Nora E. Owens. "Except those [Bureau records] dealing specifically with blacks or the agency itself," she continues, the "historians of Reconstruction in Texas have made scant or no use of the papers." Bureau personnel may have occasionally been "misinformed, or incompetent, or self-serving," but the reports of the local agents "provide an enormous reservoir of social, political, and economic information which is difficult to obtain elsewhere." Precisely because it was a "pioneer social welfare agency" dealing with sensitive Reconstruction issues, the agency becomes "an essential element in any study of the period."

The approach here is different. At the outset it must be made clear that this is not a full-scale history of the rise and demise of the Texas Freedmen's Bureau. It is selective in what it discusses, with the focus primarily upon the local level, and thus attempts a different tack than other works about the Freedmen's Bureau. The discussion begins with an overview of what has been written about the Bureau from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Until recently, the agency records were often ignored by Texas historians, and numerous negative interpretations of the organization emerged. Actually, little was known about what the Bureau did, how it performed, or what obstacles it encountered.

Two overarching interpretations are the themes of this book. First, by exploring the historiography of the Texas Freedmen's Bureau, we understand where we have been, what is the current status of the Bureau in Texas Reconstruction history, and where we might be going. When we look at the historiographical background of the Texas Bureau and the sources which make up this composite of Texas Bureau history, the limited perspectives of past writings become evident. Second, the Texas Bureau is explored from the top down and from the bottom up, based upon the extensive papers in the National Archives. This exploration suggests the many facets of its relationship to the white and black communities.

It is important to understand what the Bureau assistant commissioners believed, how they went about implementing their policies, and what effect their ideas and administration had upon agents throughout the Lone Star State. Although they have been studied as army men, they seldom have been investigated as Bureau men. Their collective commissionerships cannot be counted a rousing success. Many factors arose that curtailed what they could or could not do, not to mention their own personal limitations. They each emphasized certain aspects of the Bureau's program, but generally economics and labor relations came to the forefront. A reevaluation of these individuals suggests a new interpretation is in order.

Directly below the assistant commissioners' jurisdiction in the Bureau's organizational chart was an area designated as a subdistrict. Although these units were not strictly defined until 1867, they are important in understanding the workings of the Texas Bureau on the regional and local level. Within these geographical confines, an agent interacted with headquarters, responded to the respective black and white communities that he served, and performed a myriad of tasks. The region that a Bureau agent supervised was much too large for one man, and as a result, even within an individual subdistrict, an agent's coverage was limited. Lack of financial and institutional resources hampered an agent at every turn.

The Thirtieth Subdistrict, which included Smith County and those counties surrounding it, exemplifies this approach. The Thirtieth was not unique, for all the problems and difficulties that Bureau agents encountered in this region were similar to problems in every other subdistrict across the state. Overweening white hostility, a harassed black population, uncooperative civil and judicial officials, too many duties to perform, little protection, and clashes with undesirable elements—all characterized the Thirtieth Subdistrict as it did many other subdistricts in the Lone Star State. Politics and economics exacerbated an already tense situation, and agents had to steer a delicate course to ensure that the freedpeople received some equal consideration.

In some ways chapters 3 and 4 overlap. Obviously, an individual agent worked within his own subdistrict, but some subdistricts had more changes in personnel than did others. It is important to see how Bureau policy was implemented by various agents in a particular region and also what the policy was like under one agent who served for a relatively extended time in a specific area. Moreover, this approach demonstrates the diverse personalities of the individuals, what attitudes they brought with them, how they approached their Bureau duties, and the response of Texas blacks to their efforts. Understanding some of the difficulties these agents encountered during their Bureau service is crucial.

In chapters 3, 4, and 5, extensive use has been made of local agents' records in the National Archives. These are important sources because they are not duplicated in the microfilm edition of Record Group 105 distributed by the archives. There is some duplication between the agents' files and those of the Texas assistant commissioner, which have been microfilmed. For whatever reason, a large portion of this material did not make its way into the central files and thus is available only in the National Archives. This group includes letters to local black and white citizens, contractual relations between employer and employee, numerous complaints, and agent commentary upon relations with the surrounding community, plus much more.

One example should suffice: An agent who is the subject of chapter 4. In the Texas assistant commissioner's files on microfilm, there are about fifty letters from William G. Kirkham, plus his monthly operations report. Unquestionably, these are significant records that demonstrate many of Kirkman's problems and his relationship with headquarters. His local records comprise five volumes, not including letters he sent to local officials that also are not on microfilm. When a historian fails to research an agent's files, the impression is that a subassistant commissioner was not doing as much as he could. Consulting the agent's own copies presents an entirely different picture and a more complete record of his activities.

Kirkman was probably typical of a Texas Bureau agent and characterized many of the agent's best attributes. Dedicated, honest, and hardworking, he experienced the frustrations and small victories that every other agent across the state felt. Also he died in the line of duty while most agents did not. He was chosen for intensive investigation for three reasons. First, Kirkman left extensive records, although headquarters complained about his filing forms in the "proper manner." Second, he served in a subdistrict that was particularly violent and far removed from state headquarters. Third, his handwriting is truly distinctive and can be recognized immediately.

Finally, in chapter 5, the interaction of whites, blacks, the Bureau, economics, politics, and race relations comes into play during the first significant racial confrontation in the summer of 1868. Once again, a microcosmic approach: in this case one county and one town serve as a springboard to view what happened when a black community leader emerged, the freedmen became active in Republican politics through the organization of a Union League, and the Ku Klux Klan began to harass black organizational activities, and what role economics and race played at this time. The Freedmen's Bureau, at the center of much that occurred in Brazos County and the small village of Millican, could not prevent a clash between blacks and whites.

In summary, a different outlook on the Texas Bureau is set forth, first, by considering where we are (historiographically, chapter 1) ; second, how the assistant commissioners approached their job, what they thought, and how they implemented their ideas based on the sources (chapter 2); third, how Bureau operations functioned at the level directly below the assistant commissioners by tracing the life of a subdistrict from its creation to its demise (chapter 3); fourth, how an individual agent who stayed in one area for a considerable time met the challenges of Reconstruction (chapter 4); fifth, how the Bureau dealt with the important topics of labor, politics, and race relations in one country (chapter 5). Finally, a conclusion.

Bureau historiography has magnified the ideals of its inspirers but has belittled the performance of its field agents. This is unfortunate because more often than not they attempted to be equitable in their treatment of both blacks and whites. Indeed, this may suggest that the Bureau was more successful than past historians have realized. This book does not attempt the task of completely reevaluating the Texas Bureau, but through a series of case studies on the subdistrict and local level that are clearly typical and representative of the Texas Bureau effort, it sheds light on numerous aspects of Bureau activities and provides an intensive look at the Texas Bureau from various institutional, regional, individual, and social levels.

The various historical interpretations surrounding the post-Civil War years have created challenging debates for those involved in writing Reconstruction history. The Bureau, in the words of William S. McFeely, was designed to assist blacks "to struggle, with some hope of success, for the social, economic, and political rewards in a community offering equal opportunities to its citizens." Perhaps Du Bois, almost ninety years ago, expressed best what the Freedmen's Bureau exemplified when he wrote that the "very name of the Bureau stood for a thing in the South which for two centuries and better men had refused even to argue,—that life amid free Negroes was simply unthinkable, the maddest of experiments."

This is only the fourth published state study of the Bureau in the twentieth century. The last one, on Louisiana, appeared over two decades ago. Although the assistant commissioners are discussed, they are but a small part of the overall picture. Their backgrounds, policies, and problems are highlighted to provide a summary overview of the origins and development of the Texas Bureau. Moreover, the emphasis here is not upon administrative history, which does play a part, but on the Bureau and its functions as they related to certain select communities. A social perspective has been adopted, with an analysis of other elements as they impinged on the activities of the Bureau agents. Thus, the agent is viewed as interacting with the community.

Historians continue to view the Bureau as part of the problem in the failure of national policy, instead of its aiding in a deeper understanding of black and white responses to the Reconstruction process. Because of past negative descriptions of the Bureau, and their continued reiteration, no one takes seriously what the Bureau attempted to do. It was a delicate situation for field agents, as they were the individuals to whom the freedpeople pled their cases or demanded satisfaction and resolution to a host of difficulties. A study focusing upon one state and concentrating upon these issues should begin to clarify some of the confusion and to fill in some important gaps in the Reconstruction story.

 

Barry A. Crouch was Professor of History at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. He was the co-author of Cullen Montgomery Baker, Reconstruction Desperado (1997).

"[The] episodes in Texas Reconstruction history that Mr. Crouch relates, perhaps do more than broad generalizations to explain why the Freedmen's Bureau failed, and how we lost the peace after the Civil War."
New York Times Book Review

"Crouch skillfully presents the Freedmen's Bureau as one of the most unique, misunderstood, and maligned ad hoc reform agencies ever devised by a democratic government in the name of social and political freedom and equality."
East Texas Historical Journal

". . . breaks new ground in Reconstruction history. [Crouch's] study is among the first on the bureau in Texas and the first to focus on the subdistrict agent, the subassistant commissioner."
Journal of Southern History