Reconstruction Period Research Forum
A history of the Freedmen's Bureau schools
Accomplishment and abandonment: A history of the Freedmen's Bureau schools
by Troost, William Frank, Ph.D., University of California, Irvine, 2007, 128 pages; AAT 3269641
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the Freedmen's Bureau, was a governmental agency set up to assist freed slaves in their transition to their new lives. The bureau helped to improve the material condition of destitute blacks, and aid their transition from chattel slavery. While the bureau had many functions perhaps its most important was in helping to establish and maintain a system of schools for free blacks.
This study utilizes new data that makes an analysis of the bureau's educational activities possible. First, a data set on the location and number of bureau schools in a county is constructed from archival documents on the bureau's educational activities. The second resource that makes this analysis possible is newly available individual-level census data. This individual-level data makes it possible to assess the reach and impact of the bureau's educational effort in the early Reconstruction period. Although historians and economists have commented on the impact of the Freedmen's Bureau schools, none have quantitatively estimated their reach and the impact they had on the educational outcomes of southern blacks. This dissertation attempts to fill in this gap in the literature.
Data from original documents show the bureau was extremely successful in establishing schools throughout the former slave states. I find that nearly two-thirds of southern blacks lived in a county with at least one bureau school.
Coupling this information with individual census data, I estimate the effect that these schools had on black literacy and school attendance rates. Estimates indicate individuals living in counties with an average concentration of Freedmen's Bureau Schools had literacy rates 18-38 percent higher and school attendance rates over 100 percent higher than counties without. This paper finds the Freedmen's Bureau schools can explain up to 38 percent of the increase in black literacy from emancipation until 1870.
Analysis on the location of schools indicates the bureau tried to balance cost and need factors when establishing schools. The efforts of the bureau helped increase the human capital of black Americans who were in great need and might not have otherwise received it.