After a opening with a poem by James Russell Lowell, Du Bois begins this chapter by repeating the statement that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” He presents this as a global problem, rather than one that solely affects the US, and argues that “the question of Negro slavery” was the main cause of the American Civil War. Du Bois explains that in this chapter, he will examine the years 1861-1872 in the context of the African American community, paying particular attention to the Freedmen’s Bureau, which he characterizes as “one of the most singular and interesting” efforts to address the problem of the color line within the US.
Du Bois emphasizes the importance of historicizing the present situation of black people in America, meaning placing this situation in its historical context and showing how events in the past led to the present reality. Remember that at the time he was writing, few had conducted anything close to a proper historical study of black people’s experience following the Civil War or of institutions such as the Freedmen’s Bureau.
At the time, the President, Congress, and others all insisted that the Civil War was not about the question of slavery; however, the large numbers of fugitive slaves who appeared behind the lines of Northern forces proved that this was not the case. There was confusion over how to deal with these “black refugees,” with some suggesting that they should be returned to slave masters and others arguing they should be considered “contraband.” Eventually these fugitive slaves were put to work by Union forces, which “complicated rather than solved the problem.”
The confused treatment of “black refugees” fleeing slavery highlights the chaotic and ambiguous landscape of race relations in the South (and the US as a whole) during the end and in the immediate aftermath of slavery. For over two centuries, white people in the South had treated black slaves as property with only instrumental value, and these attitudes did not shift easily.
Eventually, President Lincoln “saw the inevitable” and issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and soon Congress called for black men to enlist in the army. However, there was still confusion over what to do with the newly liberated slaves, with army officers wondering if they were obligated to provide food and shelter for those who were not eligible to fight. In the end, the Bostonian Edward L. Pierce “pointed out the way,” overseeing the beginnings of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Meanwhile, there was a proliferation of Freedmen’s Aid organizations, which sent money, clothes, and educational materials to the South.
The Freedmen’s Bureau emerged into a chaotic situation, and Du Bois’ description of this chaos emphasizes the fact that it would have been unrealistic to expect one organization to solve all the problems created by centuries of slavery and racism, not to mention the more immediate issue of the war.
Even while schools, banks, and other institutionsfor newly freed black people were being established, there was still much uncertainty and inefficiency in the system. Many black people in the Southfound themselves unemployed or working for little to no pay. Meanwhile, land that had been abandoned during the war and dissolution of slavery was seized in order to be given to former slaves, and President Lincoln encouraged the establishment of a “comprehensive and unified plan” for the fallout of Emancipation, but this was only executed in a “half-hearted” way.
Outlawing slaveryradically transformed the political, economic, and social organization of the South overnight. On the other hand, it was not possible for the government to change people’s day-to-day lives in such a sudden and drastic way. Thus Lincoln’s ambitious plans for the aftermath of slavery were not properly realized.
In March 1865, Congress officially established the Freedmen’s Bureau. The purpose of the Bureau was to “protect” freedmen, provide them with 40 acres of land, regulate their wages, and issue rations of clothing, food, and fuel. This made each newly freed black person the “ward of the Nation,” a relationshipDu Bois portrays as especially tense given the power dynamic present during slavery. The first Commissioner of the Bureau was Major-General Oliver O. Howard, whom Du Bois describes as “honest” and well-meaning, a little incompetent, yet responsible for much positive and progressive work.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was undoubtedly founded on good intentions, as the services and provisions it offered were designed to help freed black people in the difficult transition from slavery. On the other hand, even these provisions were somewhat restrictive. The fact that freedmen were forced to become so reliant on the state preserved the dependency of black people on white men for basic needs.
Some of the tasks of the Bureau, in addition to distributing rations and establishing schools, included instituting marriages among freedmen, acting as a court of law when necessary, and helping freedmen draw up contracts with their employers. Du Bois identifies two major challenges the Bureau faced: firstly, the distribution of land to freedmen required the seizure of what was technically private property. As a result the Bureau ended up with far less land under its control than it initially anticipated. Secondly, it was difficult to ensure that the Bureau functioned efficiently, particularly at the local level, where there was “a heterogeneous and confused but already existing system of relief and control of ex-slaves.”
Again, it is important to bear in mind just how drastic a change the end of slavery was. White slave owners felt that the government had robbed them of their “property” by freeing slaves, and thus were especially unwilling to have their land taken and given to those who had been made newly free. As Du Bois shows, the government disrupted these men’s entitlement to property somewhat, but not entirely, and thus most freedmen were left without the land they had been promised.
Despite all the challenges it faced, the Freedmen’s Bureau did achieve positive outcomes, including greatly reducing physical suffering. It also “inaugurated the crusade” of New England women who traveled South to teach. In 1866 there was a debate over whether to expand the Bureau, with some arguing that expansion was necessary in order to secure the Thirteenth Amendment and others claiming that such expansion would be a breach of constitutional rights. Ultimately, a bill expanding the Bureau was passed through Congress, but vetoed by President Johnson. Despite this, the Bureau retained a great many powers, including tax collection, law-making, criminal punishment, and so on.
As this passage shows, the Bureau was most successful in addressing some of the more immediate and urgent problems that arose in the aftermath of Emancipation. However, it did not have the strength or support to grow into a sustainable long-term institution. In describing the Bureau’s setbacks, Du Bois implicitly raises the question of how history would have unfolded differently had the Bureau been more successful. What would early 20th century black life look like if that were the case?
The climate of the South at the time was tumultuous; Du Bois describes it as akin to “waking from some wild dream to poverty and social revolution.” The very name of the Freedmen’s Bureau was counter to the ideology that had dominated Southern life for two centuries. Freed slaves, meanwhile, were left “bewildered between friend and foe.” Although the system of slavery had been eradicated, the people who participated in it remained, as did their passionate feelings of hatred and fear of one another.
In this passage Du Bois shows how psychological and material racism coexist. Although Emancipation eradicated the most severe system of material racism in the US—slavery—psychological racism lingered, which in turn created new forms of material racism. This suggests that psychological racism is even harder to tackle than material oppression.
Between its founding and June 1869, the Freedmen’s Bureau facilitated the medical treatment of half a million people. In its mission to make freedmen into “peasant proprietors,” however, the Bureau faced insurmountable challenges, and the dream of “forty acres and a mule” for every freed slave was not realized. Du Bois argues that the Bureau’s greatest success was in the area of education. Although there was at first bitter opposition among whites at the prospect of promoting the schooling of young black people, $6 million was spent on education during Reconstruction, and major black universities such as Howard, Fisk, Atlanta, and Hampton were founded.
Du Bois’ account of the failures and successes of the Freedmen’s Bureau suggests that the Bureau’s success in the field of education was perhaps because of segregation. The policy of segregated schooling meant that hostile Southern whites tended not to be directly involved in the education of black people. Thus the Bureau was able to direct efforts toward black schools and universities unimpeded by white opposition.
The Freedmen’s Bureau’s least successful area of work, meanwhile, was justice. The main task of the Bureau was to make up for the deep racism of the Southern courts; however, the result of this was that “Bureau courts tended to become centers simply for punishing whites,” whereas the Southern courts essentially aimed at “perpetuating the slavery of blacks.” Meanwhile, beyond the courthouse, white people sought their own violent “revenge” on black people through beatings, rape, and lynching. However, Du Bois argues that although it is easy from a contemporary perspective to criticize the Bureau, at the time it would have been impossible to know how to address the issues the Bureau faced.
Once again, Du Bois emphasizes that even if the Bureau worked at optimum capacity, many of the issues it faced were simply unsolvable. During slavery, the justice system in the South largely existed in order to regulate the behavior of slaves, punishing slaves for running away, stealing, and so on. It was essentially impossible for a white person to be prosecuted for a crime against a black person. Although the Bureau attempted to rectify this issue, the problem was simply too widespread and severe.
Du Bois summarizes the work of the Bureau, arguing that it successfully put to use over $15 million helping freedmen, yet failed to mitigate the intense prejudice harbored by Southern whites, the “ex-masters.” Du Bois claims it was natural that an institution like the Bureau would be subject to harsh criticism, and in 1870, there was a Congressional investigation of the Bureau that eventually led to the court marshal of General Howard in 1874. Although Howard was eventually exonerated, these events brought to light many of the Bureau’s problems.
Here Du Bois explicitly suggests that the main obstacle the Bureau faced was psychological racism. Even the enormous structural and economic issues the South faced were dwarfed by the problem of white people still feeling that they had the rights of “masters” over black people. In this sense, the Freedmen’s Bureau was arguably always doomed to fail.
In general, most critics of the Bureau did not object to its handling of particular matters so much as to the fact that it existed in the first place. Du Bois argues that had the Bureau not faced such widespread opposition from Southern whites, it could have established itself as a permanent institution that would have made a significant difference in shaping the South after slavery. Ironically, the argument that the federal government should not intervene in race relations ended up being used to justify the enfranchisement of African American men.This argument proposed that the government should cease its manipulation of Southern society and allow ordinary white and black men to take matters into their own hands. Du Bois characterizes this surprising logical twist by stating that “the Freedmen’s Bureau died, and its child was the Fifteenth Amendment.”
Note that the arguments over the Freedmen’s Bureau are somewhat similar to political debates between conservatives and progressives in the US today. In the late 19th century, many white people in the South objected to idea that the federal government would have such extensive control over people’s everyday lives through the operations of the Bureau. During slavery, however, white people had controlled every aspect of slaves’ existence, and thus Emancipation presented a dilemma over how to transition to a society in which each person had full autonomy and control over their own lives, regardless of their race.
Du Boiscompares the premature death of the Bureau to that of a young person, and emphatically claims that, despite the efforts of the Bureau and of black people themselves, “the Negro is not free.” In many parts of the country, the lives of freedmen and their descendants still resemble slavery, and the legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau is its unrealized potential. Du Bois concludes the chapter by repeating its first claim, that the “problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”
Du Bois’ comparison of the end of the Bureau to the death of a child foreshadows the chapter on his son’s death. Although there is not a direct parallel between these two “deaths,” both illustrate themes of injustice, disappointment, and bitterness. Both the Bureau and Du Bois’ son carried the hope of freedom and the ultimate denial of that hope.