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How Did the Freedmen’s Bureau, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments Impact the Lives of Freed Slaves After the Civil War?

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As the Civil War wound to a close in 1865, African Americans in the South celebrated the end of slavery. They immediately began to take steps to improve their own condition by seeking what had long been denied to them: land, financial security, education, and the ability to participate in the political process. However, they faced the wrath of defeated white Southerners who were determined to keep blacks an impoverished and despised underclass. Recognizing the widespread devastation in the South, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in March 1865, popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau

Lincoln approved of the Bureau, giving it a charter for one year.

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The Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed African Americans in rebel states, and after the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment emancipated all U.S. slaves wherever they were. As a result, the mass of Southern blacks now faced the difficulty Northern blacks had confronted—that of a free people surrounded by many hostile whites. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.” Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, two more years of war, service by African American troops, and the defeat of the Confederacy, the nation was still unprepared to deal with the question of full citizenship for its newly freed black population. The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it. During the years after the war, black and white teachers from the North and South, missionary organizations, churches and schools worked tirelessly to give the emancipated population the opportunity to learn

Former slaves of every age took advantage of the opportunity to become literate. Grandfathers and their grandchildren sat together in classrooms seeking to obtain the tools of freedom. After the Civil War, with the protection of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, African Americans enjoyed a period when they were allowed to vote, actively participate in the political process, acquire the land of former owners, seek their own employment, and use public accommodations. Opponents of this progress, however, soon rallied against the former slaves' freedom and began to find means for eroding the gains for which many had shed their blood.

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The Black Codes of Mississippi are a series of laws passed by the government of Southern States in the post-Civil War period. They were meant to restrict freedoms of newly emancipated slaves (William E. B. Du Bois, 1910)

According to a clause in The Civil Rights of Freedmen in Mississippi law, African Americans were denied the right to “rent or lease any lands or tenements except in incorporated cities or towns” that were under direct control of the corporate authorities. Section three explicitly denied black persons the right for cohabitation and made interracial marriages illegal. Section seven of the law placed a restriction on the freedom of employment of freedmen and put them in control of their employees. Jorden Anderson in his letter to the former master complained about not being paid at all in Tennessee. Mississippi Apprentice Law made it legal to hire black orphans and dependents and to recompense them with just food and clothing. It also permitted corporal punishment and stipulated that fugitive African-American apprentices should be returned and punished under the law for desertion.13 Thus, Mississippi Apprentice law legalized a new form of slavery under the guise of indentured servant agreement. Mississippi Vagrant Law made a state of being unemployed for an extended period of time illegal and punishable by arrest. Section seven of the law denied African Americans a freedom of assembly. Moreover, sympathetic whites were equated with vagrants and could have been punished by a fine or a prison term of up to six months (Jourdon Andersen,1865). The backlash from the North and Republican part of Congress allowed to radicalize the rest of the Congress and to appropriate Reconstitution for the subsequent impeachment of the President Andrew Johnson.

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As has been noted, since that time, historians have debated the agency’s effectiveness

A lack of funding, coupled with the politics of race and Reconstruction, meant that the bureau was not able to carry out all of its initiatives, and it failed to provide long-term protection for blacks or ensure any real measure of racial equality. However, the bureau’s efforts did signal the introduction of the federal government into issues of social welfare and labor relations. As noted in The Freedmen’s Bureau and Reconstruction, “The Bureau helped awaken Americans to the promise of freedom, and for a time, the Bureau’s physical presence in the South made palpable to many citizens the abstract principles of equal access to the law and free labor.”

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United States Congress, “Testimony on Ku Klux Klan in Congressional Hearing” 2016.

Jourdon Andersen, “To My Old Master” “Excerpts from The Black Codes of Mississippi, 1865”

William E. B. Du Bois, “Reconstruction and its Benefits,” The American Historical Review 15 (1910): 781.

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