The Road to Freedom:
The Freedmen's Bureau Records
by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
The articles and photographs contained in this monograph are based on materials in the extraordinary records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—popularly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau—preserved at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, D.C. As our five-year program to organize and microfilm the Bureau’s records draws to a successful close, thanks to the efforts of both Archives staff and a dedicated corps of volunteers, the National Archives has begun a series of public programs—“The Road to Freedom”—designed to pay appropriate tribute to the embattled post-emancipation freedmen (and women) and to those in the Freedmen’s Bureau who worked strenuously (on many occasions dangerously) to assist the newly liberated African American population.
On behalf of the staff and volunteers of the National Archives and Records Administration, we thank the bipartisan members of Congress who provided funding and unwavering support to the project. We are grateful also to the Foundation for the National Archives for its initiative in organizing this publication.
The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau tell a compelling story of the abused former slaves’ persistent heroism and resilience in the aftermath of Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. The historian Samuel Eliot Morison described the core issue correctly, if bluntly, pointing out that “the freedmen were not really free in 1865, nor are most of their descendants really free in 1965,” when Morison wrote those words. “Slavery,” he continued, “was but one aspect of a race and color problem that is still far from solution here, or anywhere. In America particularly, the grapes of wrath have not yet yielded all their bitter vintage.” It would be comforting—but inaccurate—to state that as I write 40 years later the enormous and visible progress made by African Americans in this country in recent decades—politically, economically, and socially—has finally eliminated racism. Unfortunately, that is simply not the case.
For the moment, however, to paraphrase James Agee, let us praise famous men and women—famous though often still obscure to history. These almost 4 million newly freed slaves struggled against Herculean odds to identify and locate lost spouses, children, and families; to settle peaceably in pursuit of land and livelihood; and to achieve civil and political rights in the violent aftermath of Confederate defeat. Relatively few white Americans, North or South, stepped forward to assist the former slaves, a fact that only highlights the lonely saga of the Freedmen’s Bureau personnel, programs, and mission. Nor did the freedmen respond to abuse and discrimination with violence of their own as other freed slave classes had done. Instead, they reacted to their new ambiguous legal status and to the impediments as well as the opportunities of freedom with stunning courage, dignity, grace, pride, and restraint. If, as the elder George Kennan wrote, “heroism . . . is endurance for one moment more,” the freedmen endured. In doing so, they laid the groundwork for the successes of African Americans in the generations that have followed into our own time. Then, as today, the work continues.