By Jonathan Kennon Thompson Smith
Copyright, Jonathan K. T. Smith, 1996

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The BUREAU OF REFUGEES, FREEDMEN AND ABANDONED LANDS was created by the United States Congress, March 3, 1865 and signed into law on the same day by President Abraham Lincoln. It was an agency placed under the jurisdiction of the War Department to last for the duration of the Civil War and for one year afterwards for the purpose of issuing "provisions, clothing and fuel ... for the immediate and temporary shelter and supply of destitute and suffering refugees /whites/ and freedmen /blacks/ and their wives and children" and also to set aside tracts of abandoned land in the insurrectionary states for the use of freedmen.[1] This agency was extended by Congress until the summer of 1872 and by its termination millions of people had benefited from its operation, principally through medical treatment, providing for shelter, rations of food for the destitute and near-destitute and by the additional creation of schools throughout the South some of which became permanent institutions of learning such as Fisk and Howard Universities. In fact, by 1870, the bureau had created 4,239 schools for some 247,333 students in the South.[2]

The Bureau was headed by a commission, who from May 1865, was General Oliver Otis Howard; he had nine (eventually ten) assistant commissioners to supervise the operation of the Bureau in the states. General Clinton B. Fisk was initially the assistant commissioner for Kentucky and Tennessee and General John H. Eaton became assistant commissioner for Tennessee solely.[3] These assistant commissioners were in turn assisted by district sub-commissioners, generally called agents, most of whom were army personnel.

As most of the abandoned land in the South was returned to the white owners the Bureau "tried to convince the freedmen to accept a contract labor system. Under the contracts, former slaves worked ... for their former masters in return for food, shelter and wages. The freedmen resisted this mode of labor, so similar to slavery." Dissatisfaction with this system led to strictly share-cropping arrangements between blacks and white landowners.[4] The Bureau supervised these contracts on local levels, attempting to provide equity between the blacks and whites and having sometimes to ajudicate disputes between the contracting parties. This was often difficult to do as the Bureau "did not set minimum wages or behavioral rules."[5] As previously noted, "Perpetuating one paternalistic aspect of slavery, compensation under postwar contracts usually included some or all subsistence needs."[6] However, the freedmen were paid for their contract labor. "Compensated labor represented an advancement over slavery, yet offered scant opportunity for economic mobility."[7]

l. THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN ALMANAC, Gale Research, Inc., Detroit, Michigan, 1994, page 156.
2. DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN HISTORY, volume 3. Louise Bilehof Ketz, managing editor. New York, 1976, page 103. THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN ENCYCLOPEDIA, volume 3. Richard W. Williams, editor. New York, 1993, pages 625-626.
3. MESSAGES OF THE GOVERNORS OF TENNESSEE, 1857-1869, volume 5. Robert H. White, editor. Nashville, 1959, page 606.
4. DICTIONARY OF AMERICAN HISTORY, volume 3. Louise Bilehof Ketz, managing editor. New York, 1976, page 103.
5. SLAVERY'S END IN TENNESSEE, 1861-1865, by John Cimprich. University, Ala., 1985, page 125.
6. IBID.


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7. IBID.Also,THE WHEEL OF SERVITUDE, by Daniel A. Novak. Lexington,Ky., 1978, pages 10, 19.


Lieutenant-Colonel Fred S. Palmer was sub-assistant commissioner of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands for the District of Memphis, consisting of eighteen west Tennessee counties until September 1868 when Hardeman, McNairy, Hardin, Decatur, Henderson, Madison and Carroll counties were detached from this district and placed in the District of Bolivar with headquarters in Bolivar, Hardeman County, Tennessee. Colonel T. H. Reeves was appointed sub-assistant commissioner for this district.

Samuel Evans, a first lieutenant, was the first assistant for Madison County, serving from 1865 into January 1866;he was followed by William G. Cockrell, acting local assistant or agent early in 1866; by early spring of the latter year Galen E. Green had been appointed to this position and served as such for about a year. Alvin Allen was appointed "assistant sub-assistant commissioner' for Madison, Henderson and Decatur counties; so appointed by Special Order 47, April 15, 1867 but he resigned this position to take another one, July 24, 1867. Surviving evidence indicates that the Bureau gradually phased-out locally, probably a non-entity well into 1868.

In Alvin Allen's Letter Book, reproduced on microfilm in SELECTED RECORDS OF THE TENNESSEE FIELD OFFICE OF THE BUREAU OF REFUGEES, FREEDMEN AND ABANDONED LANDS,1865-1872, T-142, Roll 16, are brief copies of letters he wrote to Lt.-Colonel F. S. Palmer. Most of the letters were of a routine nature; some involved matters such as the following:

pages 15-16. Letter dated May 20, 1867. The freedman (unnamed) who had been bound to WILLIAM G.WELLS contested the wages he was being paid by the contract between them. The freedman had not be present at signing of contract and the freedman who witnessed the instrument could not write. Allen suggested that the contract was fraudulent.

pages 17, 19, 20, 23, 28, 36, 37. Letters dated May 20, June 4,1867. A freedman named DOCTOR LYONS, blind, formerly having served in the Federal Army as a private in Company K, the 4th U.S. Colored Artillery, was now in Jackson and unable to take care of himself. He had been brought to the court square in Jackson and left there, destitute "as one would carry away a cat or a dog from their house and leave it to the streets to the tender mercies of humanity." Allen wanted to know what disposition should be made in this case. In a July 8 letter he notified Palmer that the Madison County court had denied LYONS assistance as a pauper as he was an alien, formerly a non-resident, July 1, 1867.

pages 35, 40, 41. Letter dated July 8,1867 to F. M. H. KENDRICK, a Bureau official, asking that the repairs made by LORENZO LEA to the black schoolhouse in Jackson be made, a bill of $300. These repairs having been made in June 1867.

page 35. SPENCER SHELTON, freedman, submitted through Allen's letter to the colonel, July 8,1867, his discharge papers as he had served in the U.S. Army as a cook, to claim additional bounty for his services.

In the same series, roll 51, is recorded the fact that in June 1867 Madison County had one school for freedmen, held in connection with the white Methodist Church in Jackson; one colored teacher with 5 male students, 31 female students. In October 1867 this school had increased, teachers: one white teacher, one black teacher; 17 male students; 44 female students. (Names were not listed)


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Many of the freedmen's contracts were completed on regular forms provided for this purpose, like the one reproduced on this page. Others were written in longhand, frequently by the white persons contracting with the freedpersons. Each provided for the names of the contracting parties, the ages of the freedpersons (not always given) and details about the compensation the latter would receive for their laboring services. These documents were witnessed, although not always, and signed by the local Bureau official.

The surviving freedmen contracts for Madison County are on microfilm as SELECTED RECORDS OF THE FIELD OFFICE OF THE BUREAU OF REFUGEES, FREEDMEN AND ABANDONED LANDS, 1865-1872, T-142, Roll 69. Those contracts abstracted for this compilation generally follow the form below.

Sam Jones
Abner Davis and wife, Lena
December 15, 1865
General labor, 1866
For provisions and $175 for the year
Wits John Moore, Will Brown
S. Evans

This means that the first person or persons named was/were the white contracting party or parties, followed by the name or names of freedperson(s). The only black person employing another by means of these contracts was Freeman Bond. The date is that of the contract. Services rendered were almost exclusively for farm work, noted as "general labor." Provisions included living quarters, fuel, food, medical attention but not every contract included all these benefits. Wit/Wits refers to the person or persons witnessing the contract agreements. The 1867 contracts bore fewer names of witnesses. The last name in the column will be that of the local Bureau official. In the case of Samuel Evans, it will read S. Evans; if William G. Cockrell, W. G. Cockrell; if Galen E. Green, G. E. Green; if Alvin Allen, his name in full.


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