The Freedmen's Bureau's Impact on Education

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  • 0:01 Rebuilding a Nation
  • 0:30 Freedmen's Bureau
  • 1:22 Public Schools
  • 3:07 Colleges & Universities
  • 4:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

After the Civil War, the federal government established a department to help give opportunities to freed slaves. In this lesson, we'll examine the Freedmen's Bureau and its impact on education, including the establishments of HBCUs.

Rebuilding a Nation

At the end of the American Civil War, the nation was faced with the huge task to rebuild itself after the disasters of slavery and war. The good news was that millions of slaves were now free. The bad news was that they still had a great battle to face in order to gain equality - and that included education.

As you can imagine, this was a difficult task. Let's look closer at how the U.S. government tried to meet this task with the creation of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Freedmen's Bureau

The Freedmen's Bureau was a first step in the goal of equality. It was put together by the federal government to help freed slaves and refugees transition to freedom and the new society the South faced after the Civil War. It was a bureau dedicated to helping 'freed men,' so it was called the 'Freedmen's Bureau.'

To understand the necessity of the bureau and its work, imagine for a moment that you wake up tomorrow and your life is turned upside down. You are forced out of your home, and you need to find work because what you did before is no longer an option. This is the situation many freed slaves faced after the Civil War, except they had also been denied the advantages of education that many others had. Though the Freedmen's Bureau covered a lot of ground, one area where it made an impact was in education.

Public Schools

Imagine for a moment that you are a child in 19th-century Southern America. You want to learn to read and write and make a better life for yourself. Where do you go to learn those things?

Before the Civil War, no Southern state had an established system of public schools. There were some public schools that white children could go to, but none that were organized and required by the state. Many children were educated at home by their parents or (for the richer children) by tutors.

Likewise, slaves were educated at home. Because they were almost universally learning from other slaves, the amount of knowledge they were able to obtain was limited. A slave who could read even basic words was heads and shoulders above the rest.

After the Civil War, when the slaves were freed, they faced a great challenge. They were free to pursue jobs and opportunities that hadn't been available to them before. But they needed an education to do so. What to do?

The Freedmen's Bureau helped to establish schools for freed blacks. The schools took off, and by the end of 1865 (the first year the Bureau operated), there were more than 90,000 freed slaves enrolled in public school.

The establishment of free schools for former slaves impacted education in many ways. One major way that it changed the landscape of education was by espousing a belief in and commitment to the idea that everyone can and should be educated. As more and more people attended public schools, states began to take notice and establish free public schools for everyone, black and white.

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