The Freedmen’s Bureau: Domestic Affairs and Education

This post is an excerpt from the temporary exhibit at the Anderson County Museum.

The Bureau and Domestic Affairs

Former Reed Family slave known as Uncle Jeff stands outside the Brock house located behind Echo Hall, c.a. 1910.

In addition to militarily occupying the District and rebuilding the southern economy, the Bureau often had its hands full intervening in domestic disputes, building new social guidelines, and financially assisting destitute and starving black and white Andersonians. The Bureau issued thousands of rations to those too poor to feed themselves including widows with children, the elderly and the disabled. Additionally, those too poor to travel had their expenses covered, while elderly Andersonians were many times sent to be closer to family who could support them, often out of state. The Bureau even purchased coffins for the deceased who could not afford funeral costs.

Domestic disputes between whites and the formerly enslaved, and also those within households were investigated by the Bureau. One such case in which the Bureau intervened was that of a Freedman named Jackson. After a fight, his wife stated “she would have put an axe through his head,” and then disappeared with their children that same night. Jackson’s employer, Thomas Anderson, requested that Bureau agents track her down and return the family. Whether or not they did so successfully is unknown. Another case of note is that of Clara Ann Adams. While living on her uncle’s plantation during the war, she had a relationship with and eventually bore a child with Mayne Donalds, an enslaved worker. After the war she wrote to the Bureau asking for assistance because her family cut off support and no one would hire her due to the child.

The Bureau and Education

The Freedmen’s Bureau also helped to establish the first public school for African-Americans in Anderson. Prior to the War, enslaved African-Americans were not permitted to learn how to read or write. With the war’s end, northern missionary societies supported by the Freedmen’s Bureau established thousands of schools for Freedmen across the South. Anderson’s first, called Freedmen’s School No. 1, was likely located on University Hill where the Union soldiers occupying Anderson were usually based. Its first teacher was Private Lewis Phillips of the 1st Maine Volunteers, a Methodist minister before the war. The second school, established shortly after, was the Anderson Presbyterian Sabbath Schools Auxiliary for newly freed African-Americans. This school was taught by Andrew O. Norris, a local white leader who had actually owned ten enslaved people before the war. By 1867 more than 15 schools and Sunday schools for African-Americans had been established across Anderson District with locations in Anderson Court House, Belton, Varennes, and others.

Images: List of Freedmen’s Sponsored Schools

An 1867 Report listed the following schools and teachers:

•             Freedmen’s School No. 1 Anderson

•             Freedmen’s School No. 1 Belton

•             Presbyterian Church Sabbath School Auxiliary taught by A.O. Norris

•             Seneca Sabbath School

•             Rock Mills Sunday School

•             Rock Mills School (Private) taught by Mrs.

•             Carmel Church Sunday School- Rev Mr. Kennedy, Maj. Russell Jr.

•             Bethany Church Sunday School- Dick Fletcher (Colored) and Calhoun Newton

•             Pisgah Church Sunday School- Gilbert Smith and Frazier Orr (Colored)

•             Wesley Chapel Church Sunday School- Col. Pickens and Moses Fielding (Colored)

•             Sunday School at Thomas (Illegible)-

•             Smith’s Chapel Sunday School- Capt. Dunlain

•             Varennes Church Sunday School

•             Pleasant Grove Sunday School- Stephen Leverett, Andrew Todd

•             Concord Church Sunday School- John B. Hatson, William Robert Stevens.

Contracts and the Southern Economy

A contract drawn between Alexander Allgood and the Freedmen and women of his plantation November 16, 1865. At lower left, each of the five participants signed with an “X.”

Panel Text:

One of the largest challenges facing the Freedmen’s Bureau and the thousands of newly freed African-Americans were the allocation of jobs and homes. These new citizens often had no property, no income, and many were illiterate. The Bureau began working on this massive problem by drawing up contracts between the formerly enslaved and the families who had been their masters.

Often times African-Americans continued to live and work on the same plantations they had their entire lives. Men and women signed contracts to work for their former masters on a yearly basis, usually in exchange for lodging, clothing, or a portion of crops, though some were also paid in cash. Many younger free people, usually girls or boys under 16, were apprenticed out by their parents to learn trades or to work as house servants.

All citizens, both black and white, were penalized for breaking contracts, though the exact terms often differed by landowner and situation. For example, one formerly enslaved man named Calyer Ward worked for his former masters as a mechanic, fully owning half of the shop he worked at on their plantation and making half of its profits while also living in lodging provided by them.

The Birth of the Sharecropper

African American farmer M.B. Porter and his son, John H. Porter, working their farm in the Five Forks Section of Anderson County, c.a. 1936. They grew cotton, tobacco, soy beans, wheat, and grain. They also raised cattle, hogs and chickens.

It is possible to witness the progression of black education and society in the district through early working contracts. In the earliest contracts, many black workers simply signed their names with X’s and several did not claim surnames. As the contracts progressed into 1867 and 1868, significantly more black workers had chosen surnames, could personally read the terms of their deal, and sign their own signatures.

As 1868 came to a close, so did the Freedmen’s Bureau. Overwhelmed with often hostile Southern populations that did not support their presence and a government at home that had grown tired of war and occupation, the Freedmen’s Bureau closed its offices in 1868. However, the school program continued until late 1870. Even after the end of the program, many of the schools established by the Bureau across the region continued albeit under different names or in different forms.

The Bureau’s contract system directly impacted the next stage of southern history by creating what would become the share-cropping system. The contracts allowed for the creation of many small farms leased by black farmers and owned by white landlords. In this arrangement, a large portion of all crop yields went to the landowner. A revolving cycle resulted in which share-croppers worked in hopes to build enough wealth to buy out their own farmland, but their work could not yield enough profit to support that vision. This system continued on in the South for more than another century and has had lasting impacts to this day.