Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Freedmen's Bureau: affirmative action undone

In Radicals in Robes, Cass Sunstein argues that whatever conservatives have against affirmative action, they can't say it is unconstitutional: he points to the Freedmen's Bureau, "created in 1865 [concurrently with the Fourteenth Amendment] as a means of providing special benefits and assitance for African-Americans." Opponents "contended that the bill made 'a distinction on account of color between the two races.'" The response to that now familiar facial antidiscrimination argument was an equally familiar antisubordination refrain: "the 'very object of the bill is to break down the discrimination between whites and blacks. . . . Therefore . . . the true object of this bill is the amelioration of the condition of the colored people.'"

The point is an interesting one, even if Sunstein's history is incomplete. The Freedmen's Bureau, at least in substance, actually preceded the 14th Amendment, dating from 1861. W.E.B. Du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk, gives a fuller history of this organization, "one of the most singular and interesting of the attempts made by a great nation to grapple with vast problems of race and social condition." Though not perfect by any means, Du Bois concluded, the Freedmen's Bureau accomplished a great deal:

for some fifteen million dollars, beside the sums spent before 1865, and the dole of benevolent societies, this Bureau set going a system of free labor, established a beginning of peasant proprietorship, secured the recognition of black freedmen before courts of law, and founded the free common school in the South. On the other hand, it failed to begin the establishment of good-will between ex-masters and freedmen, to guard its work wholly from paternalistic methods which discouraged self-reliance, and to carry out to any considerable extent its implied promises to furnish the freedmen with land. Its successes were the result of hard work, supplemented by the aid of philanthropists and the eager striving of black men. Its failures were the result of bad local agents, the inherent difficulties of the work, and national neglect.

Until recently, with the wave of histories taking another look at Reconstruction and its aftermath, the balanced view that Du Bois offers was eclipsed by the self-interested interpretations of white Southerners. This description from a 1930s history of Carroll County, Mississippi, is typical:

The FREEDMEN'S BUREAU agency at Winona operated over Montgomery and Carroll counties, the agent being a Republican named Parker. Democrats denounced bitterly this agency, complaining that the freedmen's agent was prejudicing the blacks against the white people by saying the whites were robbing them. This agency annoyed planters very much by interfering in many trivial matters. On one occasion, four miles from Carrollton, a Negro was shot. He crawled to Winona and reported to the agency, charging the crime to two respected white men named Ramesy Heggie and -- Jones. The Negro was sent to Canton for safe-keeping, and the white men were tried by the bureau agent for Ku Klux. Heggie proved an alibi, showing that he was at home, nineteen miles distant. Both prisoners were released for want of proof.

The FEDERAL GARRISON at Winona sent squads all over Carroll County to protect the Freedmen's rights, and the blacks, feeling securely shielded by northern bayonets, persistently refused to work and held the whole land in terror. It was at this time that bands of white men began to solve the problem after their own ideas. They were not awed by the presence of Federal troops.

I've been looking at Freedmen's Bureau reports from Texas, as well as recent critical works on the Texas project, in an effort to find out more about the circumstances of Meshack Roberts' assault by the Klan.

Tex. report form

Details of his beating ("white men . . . solv[ing] the problem after their own ideas") are proving so far impossible to find within 32 unindexed microfilms of reports. But something of the true climate of violence in northeastern Texas in the years following the war comes across in this letter of July 17, 1868, from a black man, Joe Easley, in Sulphur Springs (Hopkins County):

Hopkins Co. letter

Dear Sir--I am this morning situated like a mariner whose vessel is sinking, and he is dripping out slips of paper, hoping they may fall into some friend's hands, that the world may know what became of him.

The reign of terror is set up in this county. I will not undertake to give a minute description of it; time and space is not sufficient. Suffice it to say that the history of the darkest ages of the world does not, in my estimation, afford a parallel. . . .

Read the full text (in Word). It appears to be addressed to an "Hon." Mr. Armstrong, and the "Convention" mentioned ("I see from the papers, you are doing all you can in the Convention to give protection") could be Texas' Constitutional Convention of 1868, which resulted (uneasily) in the Reconstruction Constitution of 1869. Wildly unpopular in Texas, with its strong centralized school system, strong centralized executive branch, voting rights for blacks, etc., it only lasted till 1875, when a very different Constitution was adopted. (Everyone knows about Texas' "weak governorship" thanks to a former governor's ascendancy to the imperial presidency--this is where it started, as a reaction to Reconstruction.)

Barry Crouch's work confirms that the early histories of the Freedmen's Bureau in Texas were as distorted as those in Mississippi and throughout the South. Though gradually improving, Crouch notes, "even some of the newer accounts still fail to grasp what the Bureau was attempting, or they find it a nuisance during the early years of Reconstruction." Certainly the project failed to live up to its promises to millions of newly freed Americans, but Du Bois' early assessment is the one that holds up today: "Its failures were the result of bad local agents, the inherent difficulties of the work, and national neglect."

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