If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

The Freedmen's Bureau

KC‑5.3.II.C (KC)
PCE (Theme)
Unit 5: Learning Objective K
Congress created the Freedmen's Bureau to economically and politically empower freed people after the Civil War.


  • The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in March of 1865 to help freed people achieve economic stability and secure political freedoms.
  • Many white Southerners, as well as President Andrew Johnson, challenged the Bureau’s legitimacy, sparking racial violence in the South and the ultimate failure of the Bureau.
  • The Bureau presented questions about the role of the federal government in establishing and maintaining racial and economic equality in the United States.

The promising goals of the Freedmen’s Bureau

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.
Cartoon ridiculing the Freedmen's Bureau.
A political poster depicting the tension regarding the Freedmen's Bureau. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was intended to act as a primitive welfare agency, aiming to ease the transition from slavery to freedom. While some Bureau agents were corrupt or incompetent, others worked hard to secure significant freedoms for blacks. Under control of Union war hero Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau delivered food to freedmen and poor whites in the South, and it helped freed people gain labor contracts.
The Bureau also took up the fight for African American education, establishing scores of public schools where freed people and poor whites could receive both elementary and higher education. Respected institutions such as Fisk University, Hampton University, and Dillard University are part of the legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau. General Howard later opened and became president of the historically black college, Howard University. In this endeavor, the Freedmen’s Bureau received support from Christian organizations that had long advocated for abolition, such as the American Missionary Association (AMA).
Photo of Oliver O. Howard.
General Oliver O. Howard. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons.

Prolonging racial tensions post Civil War

The schools that the Freedmen’s Bureau and the AMA established inspired resentment among the white population in the South. Indeed, the Freedmen’s Bureau’s programs and its very existence were sources of controversy. Those who resisted this type of federal government activism denounced it as a foolish effort and a waste of federal money.
Congress renewed the Bureau’s charter in 1866, but President Johnson, who steadfastly believed that the work of restoring the Union had been completed, vetoed the rechartering on the grounds that it interfered with states’ rights. Congress, in turn, overrode the president’s veto.
Johnson pardoned many former Confederates and restored their land, as well as removed Bureau employees he thought were too sympathetic to African Americans. Radical Republicans continued to support the Bureau, igniting a contest between Congress and the president that intensified during the next several years.
This dispute involved conflicting visions of the proper role of the federal government. Radical Republicans believed in the constructive power of the federal government to ensure a better day for freed people. Others, including Johnson, denied that the government had any such role to play.
Due to pressure from white Southerners, Congress dismantled the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1872. The Bureau failed to make a real stride towards racial equality mostly due to the fight between Congress and the President, as well as subpar funding.

What do you think?

Did the Freedmen’s Bureau succeed or fail? Why?
How did the Freedmen’s Bureau expand the reach of the federal government?
How did the Freedmen's Bureau compare to later federal programs for education and public welfare, like the New Deal or the Civil Rights Act?

Want to join the conversation?

  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jorge Daniel Garcia
    When did the Republican party shifted positions on the role of government?
    (6 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Julia Isidro
    If the Freedmen's Bureau sought to provide help and equality to freedmen, why is their advertisement depicting a black man with an ape-like face?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user sharai
    In the aftermath of the Civil war, the southern states refused to abide by federal laws.Should they have been readmitted into the Union while still in a state of what some considered insurrection/
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user rr195355
    Hi! Two questions just popped into my head while I was reading this article. Why was there a need for the Freedmen’s Bureau? And my second question is that What were some of the things that the Freedmen’s Bureau accomplished?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Vanessa
    Did the Freedmen’s Bureau succeed or fail? Why?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • purple pi purple style avatar for user josh johnson
    First, Freedman's act expanded the reach of federal government into the everyday life of the people, where before it was up to the states? Although, Freedman's Bureau was a good idea, but it never went far enough. Is it possible seeing blacks getting help and southerners still under the thumb of the northern politicians cause hatred to grow?
    And why did corrupt politicians and their friends not punished for their cheating the program?
    And why today do so few people know that Howard University was started by a white Northern General?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Jennifer
    -"as well as removed Bureau employees he thought were too sympathetic to African Americans."-for this quote remove means kill?
    -Why did American Missionary Association (AMA) support Freemen's Bureau?
    -Why did they bad about the Freedmen’s Bureau and the AMA published school?
    - why does 13,14, and 15 Amendment is success because of the Freedmen’s Bureau?
    - Freedmen’s Bureau helped poor white but why did he removed Bureau employees for just sympathetic?
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Manomay Shravage
      1)To answer your first question, Johnson likely fired those people. If he went around killing white men, he would get a bad image.
      The second question is in the context, if you read properly you can find it.
      Unfortunately, I didn't understand the 3rd and 4th questions. Please rephrase them.

      To answer your last question, Johnson removed Bureau employees because they were sympathetic towards African Americans. He didn't care if they helped poor white people. He just didn't want them to help African Americans.
      Hope this helped :)
      (5 votes)
  • old spice man blue style avatar for user ChronicScholar
    I think that it is important to remember that when the article says "radical", what the author means is "at the time, and as compared to others, they would have been perceived as 'radical'". rather than a personal interjection about what they believe about the people's views, as most of these "radical republicans", would today probably be viewed as pretty rational people.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      "Radical" here needs to be understood etymologically. It means "from the roots". The "radical republicans" referred to in the lesson were not bomb throwers, they were people who held to the root principles of their party, and who had not been swayed by historical changes since the days of the party's establishment.

      Contemporary use of the word "radical" seems to mean people who are ready to blow everything up. Even as use of the word "liberal" has come to mean people who want more regulations. These are both distortions of the words' basic meaning. In Asian and European politics, "liberals" want things deregulated. In China, the conservatives are the communists and the liberals are the people wanting change,. In the UK, the conservative party supports liberal economics.

      So, political language has to be de-coded. Starting from the etymological meaning of terms can lead to asking questions like "what do you mean by that?"

      50 years ago, a professor at my college, teaching Latin American history, put it in a nutshell, "In Latin American political names, the "Liberals" are rarely liberal, the "conservatives" are always conservative, and the "Radicals" are never radical." That helped me with the terms.
      (3 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user CHRISTA 40023863
    How does KKK reacted to the creation of freedmen's bureau?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user Julia Isidro
    Were there specific significant events that led to the removal of Freedmen's Bureau?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user