An important agency in the post-Civil War period with a purpose of social reform, the Freedmen's Bureau ultimately failed due to racism and white supremacism.
Established in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands opened as a service agency in the American South. The point of the bureau, which Southern Democrats heavily opposed, was to assist newly freed people in acclimating to a new society. Agents and soldiers enforced the rules of a free labor economy, including ensuring that wages were paid, indentures were not abused, and that schooling, worship and voting could take place.
What the agency was not expecting is the amount of violence against African Americans that permeated throughout the South in the period. Along the Red River, whites considered this agency to be part of the occupation force and generally, planters saw the freedom afforded to their former slaves as illegitimate. Countless people were beaten, kidnapped, raped, and outright murdered. The bureau was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of violence. Joe Easely, a unionist from Hopkins County (Texas) described in 1868 that "the reign of terror is set up in this county... the history of the darkest ages of the world does not, in my estimation, afford a parallel." Law enforcement and other government officials, such as post masters and mayors, were comprised of Ku Klux Klan members, making any attempts at justice impossible.
In the 1920s, renowned historian W. E. B. DuBois lauded the Bureau as an effective agency that could have brought about real social change, but white resistance and the highly polarized Congress and Executive offices ultimately led to the Freedmen's Bureau's demise. President Andrew Johnson vetoed the renewal of the agency in 1866, which allowed the Ku Klux Klan's power to grow unchecked. General William Tecumseh Sherman promoted land redistribution to newly freed people, but Congress instead restored ownership of abandoned and confiscated lands to the white planters, even though they had participated in treasonous actions. The white power structure that lorded over the South before the war fought tooth and nail to hold onto the reins after the war; this included intimidation, confiscation of firearms, arson, re-enslavement, and other unconstitutional conduct.
Below are examples of correspondence and other records generated by and for the Freedmen's Bureau from the Red River Valley that describe instances of the continued brutalization of African Americans after the Civil War ended.
Sulphur Springs, Hopkins County, Texas (1868):
Minerva James "was taken out of the house of Mr. Herman Spencer... by five armed men, carried about one mile, and brutally murdered. You would say it was the most horrid murder you ever heard of."
Charles Grimes, "the old freeman who was on the Board of Registrars" was murdered June 1st. Ben Bikestaff recruited "16 to 18 men... armed with double barreled guns and six shooters" and stole a supply train from P. A. Turk, the wagon Master.
A man by the name of Flowers was "taken out of his house at night and killed. The next day a party of men were carrying him to the burying ground, when they were fired into and one man and a little boy killed, and another man dangerously wounded, receiving a shot through the lungs. No doctor will attend the wounded man; his name is Jesse Starr."
A freedman was "taken out of Buck Thomas' kitchen and carried out on the prairie and killed."
All freedmen "Have been robbed of every thing of the least value - even taking the under dressing of freed women, their bed clothes... and then driven into the woods."
Everett Jackson "was shot and killed dead... as he walked out of his house."
Extinction of the Starr family, except females: "Luke Starr, while being held by his mother and sisters, was killed when a white mob terrorized the family. One of the party put a double barrel gun against him and hurled him into eternity. This makes a final dispossession."
Grayson and Fannin Counties, Texas (1866):
Monroe White, Jim Douglass and Jack Thomas (freedmen) shot and cut to pieces.
Tom Dunkley hauled wood to Sherman, was shot and killed by a Guerrilla.
Jack Web, riding in a company of a white man in the direction of Kentucky Town, was found shot and mangled very much.
Thomas Daniels (freedman) while working on Isom Daniels land (former master), was ordered by John Dumas to do work for him. Upon refusal, Dumas shot Thomas Daniels. "The authorities here have not taken any notice of the case."
Jack Stone was shot by a white man "who wanted to know if he knew how to treat a white man? Why don't you raise your hat then?" Killer said he had a gang for the purpose of "killing niggers."
Gang in Fannin County fired into a crowd of freedmen and killed three and wounded quite a number. An effort was made to arrest the party but failed. These men are still in the County fearless of any consequence.
Bill William in Bonham was robbed in his house, tried to escape, was shot in the side. Has since died.
Jefferson, August 26, 1868:
Hon. E. M. Pease, Austin
Sir: Last Friday night about 1 O'clock, Albert Browning (a Freedman), one of the quiet inoffensive citizens of our city, was taken out from his bed and in the presence of his wife and little children, his hands tied behind him and after being robbed of his money and many articles of wearing apparel, also a gun, pistol and his horse, was led a short distance from his house and shot through the head, five balls taking effect, evidently simultaneously from different guns or pistols --- as but one report was heard. From there they proceeded to the African church, tied their horses and entered the enclosure and commenced breaking down the door, whereupon some Freedmen who were there guarding their church fired upon them, and they ingloriously fled, and in their confusion they dropped the gun and pistol they had taken from Browning, and some other articles of value --- also Browning's horse was left tied to a stake. Since that time our city has been in a blaze of excitement, not so much on account of the assassination as from the assemblage of Freedmen at their church every night for the purpose of protecting their property, which is certainly their right, since the civil authorities fail to do it. They go to their church, enter the enclosure, fasten their gates and remain very quiet, interrupting no one, not wishing to interfere with any one, provided they are left unmolested ----
On Monday night the excitement became most intense. Mounted men well armed were riding through this city swearing vengeance against the Freedmen at the church. The citizens called a meeting and the crowd was harangued by excited orators. D. B. Culverson, I was informed by a gentleman of undoubted veracity and who was present, attacked D. Campbell, said he had organized the Loyal League here, and that such men were accountable for all this excitement and should be held accountable for anything that might happen, etc., etc., and was generally very bitter against Radicals, and all this in a public harangue to a then infuriated crowd, at a time when Campbell had been compelled to leave his house and come to town and conceal himself as best he could at night to save his life ---- night after night his house was surrounded by armed men, attempted to decoy him out by professions of friendship, assuming the names of his friends, forced Freedmen from their houses and ordered them to entice Campbell out and because they refused, tortured them by putting their heads under corners of fences and keeping them until life was almost extinct. I could give you many other instances of torture for similar purposes. ---- The civil law is a blank here, protection we must have soon or else all Union men ---- I mean loyal men will have to leave this country. Matters are growing worse every day --- hundred of negroes are now preparing to move to Louisiana, and I believe eventually all of them will leave this section. We need a squad of Cavalry --- say 25 or 30, for the men who are committing these deeds of horror are mounted men and Infantry can never overtake them. Two mounted men dashed boldly into town yesterday and robbed a Freedman's horse and was gone in a few minutes. The civil officers started on foot to arrest them but they never ---- saw them ---- Hoping we may have protection soon. I am, Very Respectfully, Your Obedt. Servt., (sgd) W. H. Johnson
From Freedmen Bureau's Reports in Arkansas (1866):
Capt. Cole at Camden reports July 31st 1866 of Union County.
"I find affairs there deplorable in the extreme. Several Freedmen have been murdered under circumstances of great atrocity; others on the laying by of crops in which they were interested as remuneration for their labor, have been run away from their homes and their lives threatened if they returned or made complaint of it to this office. The feeling there against the Freedmen is most intense and bitter. In confirmation of these facts I have on file many affidavits containing testimony of the most incontrovertible characters."
Capt. Cole at Camden reports Sept 30th 1866 of Union County.
"There will in my opinion be very little chance for Freedmen to get their first dues from planters, unless they are compelled to come to the office of the Supt. when the settlement takes place. The people persist in trying to defraud the freedmen in every conceivable way. Outrages, assaults and murders committed upon the persons of Freedmen and women are being continually reported from nearly all sections of the States and a decided want of a disposition to punish the offenders apparently exists with the local civil officers and in the minds of the people. There have been (52) fifty-two murders of freed persons by white men in this state reported to this office in the past three or four months and no reports have been received that the murderers have been imprisoned or punished. In some parts of the State, particularly in the Southeast and Southwest, Freedmen's lives are threatened if they report their wrongs to the Agent of this Bureau, and in many instances the parties making reports are missed and never heard of afterwards. It is believed that the number of murders above reported is not half the number actually committed during the time mentioned."
From Freedmen's Bureau records in Louisiana (1868):
Parishes of Caddo and Bossier September and October 1868
"Parishes of Bossier and Caddo Information has been received that Henry Jones, Freedman, one of the leaders on the intended riot in Bossier Parish on or about September 20th was taken from his home and shot that he was then placed upon a brush pile which was fired and was then left by his intended murderers who supposed him to be dead after their departure he succeeded in crawling off but not before he was badly burnt. Also under date of September 20th that Freedmen in northern part of Parishes are constantly being taken from their homes by desperadoes and either being killed or forced to leave their homes, crops and everything they possess, that no laws of any kind are enforced, that on Sept. 29th at Shady Grove plantation in Bossier Parish about 8 miles from Shreveport a riot occurred caused by the lawless acts of desperadoes in which (2) two white men were shot and mortally wounded. Thirteen (13) freedmen and one (1) freedwoman killed and (2) two freedmen wounded. Latter advices in regard to the Bossier troubles state that some 8 or 10 freedmen more than the above reported were killed by the Arkansas Desperadoes and that after their departure the citizens of Bossier and the friends of the two murdered white men have been in constant pursuit of all freedmen implicated in the murder of the two whites and have killed all whom they have caught, from all the information that can be gleaned the number of freedmen killed, of which there are various statements, will reach (100) one hundred at least. It would be a matter of impossibility to ascertain the names of the killed or for an investigation to be made. Anyone that would attempt the task would share the fate of the rioting negroes. At Shreveport on October 16th a colored man named Robert Gray was shot and killed by a white man named Charles Wasson in a store on Texas St. The body of a negro was also found floating in Red River the same day in a far advanced state of decomposition.
Sabine Parish January 25, 1868
Charles (Sam) Wilson, freedman, murdered by William Winn, Joseph Lynch, Henry Duke and the two sons of Mr.? and a stranger from Texas. Reported that these person lynched or executed Plaintiff for committing a rape on a white girl. Men were summoned to give testimony, no resolution.
Shreveport, LA January 2nd, 1870
Respectfully forwarded. These people are subject to humiliating restrictions. They have in a sense, almost to go back into bondage in order to educate their children and worship God. I hope the Commissioner can see his way clear to approve their request for the amount asked. I will see that the proper deeds are made so as to secure the property forever for the purpose intended. Is the principal Baptist Church in the County has considerable influence in this region around about - am certain assistance in the amount asked would we wisdom. During the election Massacre last year they ordered the friends of the Conf (?) marked assistance (sgd) James McClury, Captain U.S.A. Supt. Education