General O. O. Howard's Fight For Education of the Freedmen

by Denise Henderson

Printed in The American Almanac, February 15, 1993.


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Today, as Americans concerned about the disintegration of the U.S. system of public education grapple with the problems, and seek solutions, they might want to look back at the work done by Gen. O.O. Howard, the founder of Howard University in Washington, D.C. Howard was made head of the Freedmen's Bureau in 1866, and committed himself to the development of a comprehensive education program for the 4 million newly freed black slaves in the United States.

The idea of educating the slaves did not arise only with the Reconstruction period ``Radical Republicans,'' like Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens. In 1689, Cotton Mather of Massachusetts, the great scientist and lawgiver, called for the education of enslaved Africans in the American colonies. ``Their Souls, which are as white and good as those of other Nations,'' wrote Mather, ``are not look'd after, but are Destroyed for lack of Knowledge. This is a desperate Wickedness.'' Mather called slavery a ``crying sin throughout the land.''

Nearly two centuries later, a member of Mather's Congregational Church, Oliver Otis Howard, committed himself to educating the newly freed slaves. Howard was a Civil War general who was made army commander under General William T. Sherman before Sherman's march through Georgia. He was known among his peers as a general who did not smoke, drink, or curse. General U.S. Grant had teased him about this, but Howard took his spiritual commitment to heart.

Howard's abilities to get things done and his charitable character led General U.S. Grant to recommend him to become head of the newly created Freedmen's Bureau in 1866. Howard's leadership role in that office was responsible for the aggressive educational campaign which the bureau undertook.

That leadership role made Howard enemies, to be sure. While in that office, he was investigated twice for suspected malfeasance; under President Andrew Johnson, members of his staff, spread across the former Confederate states and some border states, were harassed, their authority undermined, and their charges--the freedmen--abused. Despite that, Howard's bureau accomplished something remarkable: It laid the basis for the true liberty of the freedmen, a system of universities and colleges which trained African-American scientists, doctors, and teachers.

These schools became the educational centers which radiated back into African-American communities. Although Howard's vision exceeded what pragmatic politicians would allow, the infrastructure which the Freedmen's Bureau put in place under Howard's leadership lasted far into the future in terms of its positive accomplishments.


What the Bureau Did

The work of the Freedmen's Bureau has largely been obfuscated by historians. It is often portrayed as a Radical Republican institution which was set up to provide welfare to blacks and to ensure that former slaves, who were being made eligible to vote, voted for Southern Republicans. Because the Freedmen's Bureau enforced the legal rights of blacks and pro-Union Southerners, and was so active in the field of education, it was detested by southern Freemasons, in the form of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was enraged at the failure of its divide-and-conquer strategy for the United States. Worse, a ``race'' which they alleged to be innately inferior, was now being respected and treated as its equal.

With the end of the Civil War, 4 million African-Americans were freed. At the same time that questions of economic policy toward the South were being debated, the care of freedmen, who were by and large destitute, was also being debated in the Congress of the United States. In March 1865, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, overriding President Andrew Johnson's veto. Generals Grant and Sherman had been lobbying for some institution to be established in order to guarantee the rights of the freedmen.

In 1866, General O.O. Howard was named commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau. He saw the role of the bureau differently than many. The story of his first encounter with his ``bureau'' is described by Howard in his Autobiography:

``The clerk in charge brought in a large, oblong, bushel basket heaped with letters and documents. [Secretary of War Edwin] Stanton, with both hands holding the handles at each end, took the basket and extended it to me and said: `Here, general, here's your Bureau!'|''

Howard, who retained his military rank, set to work. In his Autobiography, he conveys the nobility of spirit and the optimism which imbued the Union Army back then. The prevailing attitude among generals regarding escaped slaves prior to the January 1, 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, wrote Howard, became ``|`God means us to free all the slaves. We will not succeed in putting down the rebellion till we set every slave free.' It was not a brazen attempt to interpret the divine will, but, somehow, a settled conviction of men's souls.''

Howard also wrote that ``The prevailing thought was: The slaves are becoming free; give them knowledge--teach them to read--teach the child!'' Wherever aid societies sprang up to help the freedmen, wrote Howard, there also sprang up schools, ``for ... education was to be the permanent cure for all existing ills.''


Setting Up the Schools

Before the Freedmen's Bureau was formally created, the American Missionary Association (AMA) and other Northern benevolent societies had already set up schools for freedmen in Southern states which had been recaptured by the Union Army. But sustaining such an enterprise through charity and voluntarism was as difficult then as it is today.

In these circumstances, Commissioner Howard was able to provide infrastructure and financial backing to the ongoing efforts of these societies. In 1865, some 1,405 trained educators were teaching 90,778 children; by 1870, the Tenth Semiannual Report on Schools for Freedmen, in its ``Statistical Summary,'' reported that there were 4,239 ``schools of all kinds,'' 9,307 teachers, and 247,333 pupils. J.W. Alvord, Howard's general superintendent of schools, reported total expenditures, including those of benevolent societies, to be about $1 million.

Behind the statistics lay Howard's optimistic view that education would guarantee for the freedmen ``both privileges and rights that we now have difficulty to guarantee.''

In his Autobiography, Howard reviewed how the Bureau raised funds in its first two years, when no appropriation for it had been authorized by Congress. Some 30 percent of Bureau funds came from benevolent societies, and the rest from previously existing infrastructure funds set up to obring in the cotton crops.

The example of Rev. John Eaton was instructive for Howard. Eaton headed the Army of the Tennessee Department of Negro Affairs from 1862 to 1865, and had used money earned from taxes on cotton, revenue from cotton crops on abandoned lands, and rents from abandoned lands to create a freedmen's fund. Howard continued the practice, and made the bureau for its first two years of existence self-sustaining. The revenues from the abandoned lands, combined with donations from the AMA, allowed Howard not only to sustain existing freedmen's schools, but to expand them into a quasi-public school system.

Howard believed that wherever there was a need for schools, they should be built. He also knew the significance of Northern industrial capital investments in the South, and the importance of railroad building as a connection between education and the development of modern manufacturing in the South. Howard reported that in St. Louis, although ``they had not yet the advantages of a single public education institution ... along the line of the railroads there was springing up a favorable feeling....''

The Freedmen's Bureau had been established at the same time the clamor for universal free public education was growing. And, as the desire and the mandate for more schools grew, so too, did the need for institutions of higher learning to sustain such a national effort.

The idea of both compulsory public education and of colleges and universities which could sustain such an effort, although not new, was partly inspired by the success of the Weimar Classic period in Germany. The Weimar example was in the minds of U.S. educators sympathetic to universal free education. It was cited, for example, by the first commissioner of education in the United States, the Rev. John Eaton, and by the founder of Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, S.C., Francis Cardozo. These men saw free public education as a wellspring of a republican society, and they saw education as the means of putting an end to social and economic injustice.


Opposition from Johnson and the KKK

But from the beginning, the teachers and staff of the Freedmen's Bureau faced opposition from both the Ku Klux Klan and President Andrew Johnson. Of the Ku Klux Klan, Howard wrote, ``The oath of ... every chief to obey without hesitation the orders of some `inner circle,' constituted societies which in some parts of the South came to rival the Nihilistic assassins of Russia.... [Its] main object from first to last was somehow to regain and maintain over the negro that ascendancy which slavery gave, and which was being lost by emancipation, education, and suffrage.''

Howard also described some of the Klan's terrorist actions taken against the freedmen's schools. In Charleston, West Virginia, after the KKK threatened a bureau teacher, no one could be found to board the teacher. In Louisiana, ``Miss Jordan's school at Gretna was entered by ruffians; the walls of her room were covered with obscene pictures and language''; in Ouachita, Texas, a teacher named Frank Sinclair was murdered, and ``other helpers there were so put in jeopardy of their lives that they could only teach secretly in the cabins.'' In Rock Spring, Kentucky the schoolhouse was burned to the ground and the black teacher told to leave the country.

``The most heinous crimes,'' observed Howard, ``occurred just before an election.''

The opposition from President Johnson was of a different sort. Johnson opposed the equality of the two ``races.'' As President, Johnson was in a position to countermand Howard's appointments, and the decisions of Howard's officers, who generally had the Commissioner's fullest confidence.

Johnson's most egregious act in relation to the Freedmen's Bureau was his returning the abandoned lands in the South to those whom he pardoned, rather than to those Southerners who could establish their loyalty to the Union. Because the bureau held property which produced income for the Freedmen's Fund, ``I had presumed and believed,'' wrote Howard, ``that this tenure would continue until those purposes were accomplished; that such property must be surrendered by us only when it was made evident that our possession and control of it was not proper. But the positive adverse action of President Johnson and the non-action of Congress caused a complete reversal of the Government's generous provision for the late slaves. Thus, early officers and agents were constrained to undertake to make bricks without straw.''

Johnson's wholesale pardons of erstwhile Southern traitors were infamous. The pardons also meant less land for the government to cultivate, and the Freedmen's Bureau's independent source of funding dried up. By 1868, the bureau had to have appropriations from the federal government. And these appropriations were used to accuse Howard of corrupt practices with regard to the Freedmen's Bureau.


Higher Education

As important as freedmen's schools were, however, Howard soon realized that to supply teachers, doctors, and an educated ministry to serve the burgeoning African-American communities would require a university system.

``Academies and colleges, universities, and normal [teacher training] schools, had long been a necessity in all sections where the free schools had been continuously sustained.'' Thus did Howard, with the help of Senator Henry Wilson and Horace Mann's niece, among others, form the plan for founding Howard University in Washington, D.C.

During Reconstruction, colleges and universities for African-Americans generally existed on one of two plans. One was what became known as the ``normal industrial school,'' and the other was a college or university which usually had programs for teachers, doctors, and ministers. Within that plan, the Classical curriculum was followed.

Atlanta University, Fisk University in Tennessee, and others followed the Classical curriculum. Fisk was the home of the Jubilee Singers, who raised funds for the college by going on singing tours with a repertoire of Classical music and spirituals. Atlanta University taught German, as did the African Methodist Episcopal Church-sponsored Wilberforce University in Xenia, Ohio. All taught ancient Greek, mathematics, and physics as a matter of course.

This was the model Howard chose for Howard University. The idea was to provide teachers who were well qualified, and not simply freedmen who were attempting to run a school with an 8th-grade (or less) education. General Howard was also the first to create a medical teaching college for African-Americans. At the time, this idea was considered radical, even though there was a desperate need for doctors in the black community. In urban areas in South Carolina, for example, infant mortality rates reached as high as 30 per 100 in the post-Civil War years. But it was quite farsighted, since Howard University developed one of the best teaching hospitals and research centers in the country.

Howard and his friends also decided to found a law school and, of course, a non-denominational theology department to teach the clergy, also considered a serious need.

While Howard was able to appropriate funds from the Freedmen's Bureau to Howard University, he did not neglect to have the bureau provide funds to other institutions of higher learning. Under today's ``ethics'' Howard would be seen as having overstepped his authority. The bureau donated funds to private denominational colleges as well as to non-denominational ones. There were very few state colleges at that time, so there was no question in Howard's mind that those institutions, committed to the education of the freedmen, needed funds and ought to be given them. There was no phony controversy over ``church'' vs. state schools then; there was only the desire to teach all the children, and to sustain that effort.


Bureau Under Fire

The dispute between President Johnson and General Howard worsened. On August 23, 1866, Howard sent a report describing the work of the Freedmen's Bureau to President Johnson, after two inspectors had brought allegations against the officers. Howard used his response to the allegations to describe the bureau's successes.

One of the complaints concerned a dispute about the handling of labor contracts, in which the Freedmen's Bureau attempted to create fair wage and labor practices for the freedmen. Howard wrote:

``The inspectors declare that the Bureau has been in the aggregate productive of more harm than good, and give as their reasons, substantially, the reliance upon it of the negroes, and their consequent distrust of the property holders....

``Riots, murders, and wicked deeds have recently sprung up, but these are in no way initiated or caused by the officers of the Government....

``The principles that apply to wages induced the present contract system. I would have been glad to have adopted precisely the same methods of regulating labor as have obtained in the Northern States, but neither the planters nor the freedmen were yet prepared for this.

``... Planters refused to employ freedmen at all unless they would agree to remain one year. Of course, freedmen were driven into those obligations by the same force that compelled them to work for low wages.... All the power that capital could exercise was brought to bear upon the laborers of the South to make them contract.

``We then labored earnestly and unsuccessfully to elevate wages and defended the interest of the freedmen in their contracts, being constantly resisted by the inertia of the peculiar opinions of Southern property holders. The evils in the contracts will disappear just as soon as free labor shall have a permanent foothold under its necessary protection of equal and just laws properly executed....''

Howard concluded by attempting to reason with President Johnson:
``Could the Freedmen's Bureau now be administered with your full and hearty sanction, and with the cooperation of other branches of the Government, it would fulfill the objects of its creation in a short time, and be made, while it existed, to conduce for all classes of the people to industry, enlightenment, and justice.... If the Government would keep faith with its new-made citizens, some sort of a United States agency must be maintained in the Southern States until society shall have become more settled than it now is.''

With the advent of congressional Reconstruction, overriding Johnson's Reconstruction policies, the Freedmen's Bureau received funding, and an expanded commission. Yet the politically motivated opposition to the Bureau in Congress decided to investigate Howard a second time.


Howard Investigated

This investigation was demanded by the former Copperhead mayor of New York, Congressman Fernando Wood. Howard's trouble started when he requested that the Freedmen's Bureau be closed and its educational activities be transferred to the Department of Education--including its assets of $600,000. Fernando Wood publicly asserted, according to Howard, ``that this was only a scheme of General Howard to make away with $600,000 more of the public money.''

Howard subsequently brought his case before the Committee on Education and Labor, which, after hearing from both sides, sustained Howard. In their report, the committee praised the work of the Freedmen's Bureau:

``The impulses of freedom and progress were controlling the national mind; and, trusting to those impulses, he went to work on the principle that only `ideas save races.'|''

The committee recommended that a resolution be passed by the House, which was done on March 2, 1871:

``Resolved, That the policy pursued by the United States toward four and a half million of its people suddenly enfranchised by the events of a great Civil War, in seeking to provide for them education, to render them independent and self-supporting, and in extending to them civil and political equality, is a source of just national pride; and that the House hereby acquits Major General Oliver O. Howard of the groundless and causeless charges lately preferred against him, in successfully organizing and administering with fidelity, integrity, and ability the Freedmen's Bureau, which has contributed so much to the accomplishment of the first two of these great ends, he is deserving of the gratitude of the American people.''

The later suppression of the rights of African-Americans, under the ``Jim Crow'' policies, was very harsh. But schools like Howard University, Atlanta University, Wilberforce University, Hampton College, Morehouse College, and many others, even in the ugliest period of the Jim Crow laws, did not shut down. They continued to educate.

Out of these schools came men like Booker T. Washington, who founded Tuskegee Institute, the university which produced such civil rights leaders as Amelia Boynton Robinson, George Washington Carver, and Martin Luther King, Sr., whose refusal to ``think like a slave'' served as an example to his son, Martin Luther King, Jr. There was also Thurgood Marshall, who went to Howard University, and became the first black Supreme Court Justice. Other leaders in the fields of medicine, science, and education also have graduated from Howard, which has maintained its reputation as a medical teaching college and research center of some note. It was there that Dr. Charles Drew mastered the secrets of blood plasma.


Leave This Site For A Link To: "The Freedmen's Bureau", by W. E. B. Dubois. Published in The Atlantic Monthly, NY, 1901, Vol. 87. E-text link at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center.

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The preceding article is a rough version of the article that appeared in The American Almanac. It is made available here with the permission of The New Federalist Newspaper. Any use of, or quotations from, this article must attribute them to The New Federalist, and The American Almanac.


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