A New Angle on the Freedmen’s Bureau: A Conversation with James Downs

Jim Downs
Jim Downs. Image courtesy of Connecticut College.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies. Today, we’re speaking with James Downs. Downs is an Associate Professor of History and American Studies at Connecticut College. He recently published Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction (Oxford University Press, 2012), which tells the largely unknown story of the many former slaves who died at the moment of freedom. Dr. Downs has also published on the representations of slavery in museums and historic landmarks in the United States, England, and the Bahamas. He is currently working on two book projects—the first on the international outbreak of the 19th-century cholera epidemics, and the second on the history of sexuality. The recent recipient of a prestigious New Directions Fellowship, Dr. Downs is spending the 2015-2016 academic year on sabbatical as an Andrew W. Mellon fellow at Harvard University.

CWI: What was the Freedmen’s Bureau? Who operated it, and what purposes did it serve?

DOWNS: The Freedmen’s Bureau was a federal government agency that helped to ease former bondspeople’s transition from slavery to freedom. Established by Congress in 1865 as the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Land, the Freedmen’s Bureau negotiated labor contracts; established provisional schools; constructed schools and began the first-ever system of federal medical care—building over forty hospitals, employing over 120 physicians, and treating an estimated one million formerly enslaved people.

CWI: What types of records about the Freedmen’s Bureau still exist, and to what uses might we put those records?

DOWNS: Due to the establishment of many Bureau offices throughout the postwar South and the employment of thousands of individuals, the Bureau generated an enormous bureaucracy that left an incredible archival record that could be used (and has been used) for historians to answer all sorts of new questions. Historians have studied the Freedmen’s Bureau for many years. Led by Ira Berlin at the University of Maryland in 1976, teams of scholars have mined the Freedmen’s Bureau documents at the National Archives for clues on how formerly enslaved people contributed to the rebuilding of the nation. These documents powerfully and profoundly changed how historians understood the Civil War and Reconstruction and signaled the potential for using governmental and other archival records to uncover the untold history of black people in the United States.

Today, historians continue to use the Bureau records in order to study the Reconstruction era. In my own research, I used the Bureau records to piece together how illness spread, epidemics exploded, and mortality rose among the newly freed population. While historians had examined the political, economic, legal, educational, and even gendered aspects of Reconstruction, the richness of the sources and the broadness of the geographic scope allowed me to develop a new way of looking at the past.

Historians continue to use these records to uncover new aspects about the war. I suspect that environmental historians could make great use of the land records that detail plantation life and the activities on small farms. The Bureau records on marriage, education, and even contractual disputes offer a rare glimpse to observe the texture of the period, the rhythm of people’s lives, and the concerns that animated their days and nights; I could only imagine how social historians of gender, sexuality and the family could use these documents to uncover illustrative details about the period.

Analytically the documents also offer new ways of interrogating the period. As I contemplate the mere title of the Bureau and its use of the terms “Refugees,” which meant white, displaced Southerners and “Freedmen,” which meant former enslaved people, I am reminded of a conundrum that I faced when I was writing my book: many so-called freedmen were refugees but both the language that we use to describe these people and the language that those in the postwar South employed left little rhetorical room for a description of freedmen as refugees. The term “freedmen” rightly marked black people’s status as no longer enslaved but it unwittingly placed a polish on their experience that left little room to discuss the struggles, challenges, and suffering that accompanied the process of emancipation. “Freedmen” were also refugees but the discourse of freedom created a semantic problem that could not capture formerly enslaved people’s illness, mortality, and suffering.

In her new much-anticipated book on freedwomen during the war, Thavolia Glymph uses the term refugees in order to capture the discontents of emancipation. Glymph’s forthcoming book also draws on the Freedmen’s Bureau records, indicating the strength and versatility of the collection to continue to inspire new research.

Freedmen's School (J Downs)
Freedmen’s School on Roanoke Island, NC. Image courtesy of the Civil Rights Museum.

CWI:  How did the Freedmen’s Bureau set the stage for future advancements—and challenges to advancement—for African Americans?  What role did the Freedmen’s Bureau play in the lives of Native Americans?

DOWNS: As I neared the completion of my book, I began to notice in the documents that many of the Bureau doctors and leaders began to be deployed to the West as the Freedmen’s Bureau terminated its activities in the South. Chief among them was O.O. Howard, the head of the Bureau, who went west after the war to address the condition of Native Americans. As I studied the activities of the military in the West, the reservations began to look differently to me.   Like many other students of U.S. History, I had studied the rise of reservations and the government’s efforts to relocate Native peoples there, but having spent years immersed in the refugee camps, which housed formerly enslaved people, I began to uncover many similarities. Both were organized by government and staffed by the military; both received support and aid from Northern benevolent organizations, comprised mostly of women, who attempted to educate and to support these populations. Both aimed to maximize capital production by insisting on self-sustaining agricultural production that in theory made sense but in terms of the environmental conditions could not last. Both also restricted people whose place in the Republic remained questionable to policed camps where they could be monitored. There were also financial transactions that I explain more in the epilogue of my book, but in short government monies seemed to easily transfer from the Freedmen’s Bureau to the Office of Indian Affairs. I argue that while the reservation system predated refugee camps, the number of reservations exploded after the Civil War. I suggest how the government’s handling of formerly enslaved people shaped the increased development of reservations in the late nineteenth century, which is not an unforeseeable outcome given that it was often the same people who ran both the reservations and the refugee camps.

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