Even in the atmosphere of intense violence, Freedmen’s Bureau agents committed themselves to the education of Texas’ former slaves.
Generally speaking, Texas’ white population viewed the Freedmen’s Bureau’s agents as an occupying force and not as an agency to help transition blacks from slavery to freedom. The Freedmen’s Bureau operated in Texas from September 1865 until July 1870. These five years served as a perfect case study of government-sponsored paternalism. Still, in Texas, as in the other former Confederate States, the primary responsibility of Freedmen’s Bureau agents was providing oversight for former slaves transitioning their lives from slavery to freedom. Crucial to this transition was the establishment of an agriculture system, and, more specifically, the establishment of schools for blacks.
Literature on the Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas
William Richter and Barry Crouch examined the roles of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Texas in Overreached on All Sides: The Freedmen’s Bureau Administrators in Texas, 1865-1868, and The Freedmen’s Bureau and Black Texans, respectively. Both found that the bureaucratic nature of the Freedmen’s Bureau kept it from making real significant contributions to Texas’ post-war society. Furthermore, they argued that those Texans that maintained their loyalty to the Confederate cause, and white supremacy, routinely terrorized blacks, bureau agents, and the Union army soldiers.
Regrettably, by December 1868 the lack of funds and local support led to the closing of many local Bureau offices throughout Texas, and the cessation of all its programs except those involving educational development. Incidentally, education, through the establishment and operations of black schools, was the one area that the Freemen’s Bureau excelled.
Educating the Former Slaves in Texas
Even though some whites in Texas tried to educate blacks before emancipation, wholesale attempts at education did not occur until after 1865. Rosina Hoard recalled how their master’s son tried to teach slaves to read while they were out in the fields hidden from his father’s view. However, the master’s arrival meant the end of that day’s lessons. Hoard said, “De workers watch for massa and when dey seed him a-ridin’ down de hill dey starts singin’ out, ‘Ole hawg ‘round de bench – ole hawg ‘round de bench.’ Dat the signal and den everybody starts workin’ like dey have something after dem.”
Nonetheless, blacks began receiving formal lessons after emancipation as over one thousand blacks were being taught at only sixteen schools by the end of 1865. By 1870, there were 150 schools educating over 9,000 black Texans. While many whites committed savage acts against schools and teachers, these educational programs generally accomplished their goals of educating blacks.
However, there were definite instances when northern white schoolteachers could not understand the plantation culture of the south. Such disconnect presented challenges in the educational process. For example, Wayman Williams commented that, “Some white school teachers from up North come to teach de chillen, but dey didn’t talk like folks here and didn’t understan’ our talk. Dey didn’t know know what us mean when us say ‘titty’ for sister, and ‘budder’ for brother, and ‘nanny’ for mammy.”
Reconstruction Era Violence against Blacks
While education was their greatest success, protecting the black community was their greatest challenge. The violent acts committed against blacks during the time of the Freedmen’s Bureau’s operations in Texas indicated the commitment of some groups and individuals in maintaining white supremacy in Texas. The surviving records from the Bureau indicate that many acts of violence committed during the agency’s tenure were not random, but were directed specifically against blacks. From June 1865 to December 1866, there were over 12 homicides and 39 physical assaults in the Houston area alone.
Regrettably, many whites throughout Texas saw the new federal legislations as insulting reminders of their loses during the Civil War. Furthermore, they believed the Union army, carpetbaggers, and the Freedmen’s Bureau agents were an occupying force determined to upset what they considered the “proper” social order by subjugating and punishing whites to secure the needs of the former slaves. Many whites retaliated through violence and even bragged about the murder of several blacks. Unfortunately, the atmosphere of fear and hate that was so pervasive throughout Texas after emancipation negatively affected the educational opportunities of blacks for the next 100 years.
- Burchert, Ronald. 1980. Butchart. Northern Schools, Southern Blacks and Reconstruction. Westport: Greenwood Press.
- Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869, Letter from L. Shoemaker to EM Pease, June 23, 1868, National Archives M821, roll 32.
- Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, 1865-1869. Miscellaneous Records Relating to Murders and other Criminal Offenses Committed in Texas 1865-1868, National Archives M821, roll 32.
- Hoard, Rosina. Slave Narratives. Box 4H359, University of Texas, Center for American History.
- Johnson, James. Slave Narratives. Box 4H359, University of Texas, Center for American History.
- Morris, Robert. 1981. Reading, ‘Riting, and Reconstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Smallwood, James. 1981. Time of Hope, Time of Despair: Black Texans During Reconstruction. Associated Faculty Press, Inc.
- Williams, Wayman. Slave Narratives. Box 4H359, University of Texas, Center for American History.