Communities in Need Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Descriptions by and about the people most affected by Reconstruction, the freedmen, can make for compelling reading. In some cases these took the form of letters written to members of the newly established Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency charged with overseeing the progress of freed slaves. Many of the accounts involved complaints or enumerations of problems encountered while individuals and their families came to terms with their new lives, often under the aegis of federal or state authorities. The descriptions range from misbehavior and theft by outsiders–including Union soldiers nominally assigned to the protection of freedmen communities–to the denial of basic rights and other legal provisions that were supposed to have been accorded them. It is not always certain, given the nature of the situation (i.e., government bodies and voluntary groups overseeing complicated, multifaceted programs), that these individuals' complaints were satisfactorily addressed.

Descriptions by and about the people most affected by Reconstruction, the freedmen, can make for compelling reading. In some cases these took the form of letters written to members of the newly established Freedmen's Bureau, a federal agency charged with overseeing the progress of freed slaves. Many of the accounts involved complaints or enumerations of problems encountered while individuals and their families came to terms with their new lives, often under the aegis of federal or state authorities. The descriptions range from misbehavior and theft by outsiders–including Union soldiers nominally assigned to the protection of freedmen communities–to the denial of basic rights and other legal provisions that were supposed to have been accorded them. It is not always certain, given the nature of the situation (i.e., government bodies and voluntary groups overseeing complicated, multifaceted programs), that these individuals' complaints were satisfactorily addressed.

In this section we hear from the members of such communities as well as from persons involved in assisting them and from members of the public who had an interest in the subject. One of the clearest examples of a “relief” program instituted under the banner of Reconstruction was a concerted effort to provide educational opportunities to the freedmen and their offspring. Again, the issue of the scope and kind of education to be provided raised itself, and again the approach frequently taken was one that may strike today's reader as unfamiliar (involving, as it did, a blend of vocational training and the “three R's” along with a healthy dose of religious precepts). Overall, a tone of high morality prevailed. When, however, we hear the story from an actual teacher, particularly an African American teacher such as Edmonia Highgate, we can appreciate the reality of the time all the more. Highgate shows us that more was involved than simple pedagogy; there were problems of a life-or-death nature brewing outside the classroom as Southern whites sought to disrupt the effort.

“Sickness and suffering,” a commonly used phrase of the nineteenth century, certainly applied to many of these early freedmen's communities–including the oldest and best known of them, Roanoke Island. We hear here more than once about Roanoke and its ills. In truth, many of the “communities” that formed during the Reconstruction era were nothing like Roanoke: they were not planned on idealistic principles but rather emerged on the basis of age-old principles of (free) human movement and economic opportunity. “Forty acres and a mule” was about as high-principled as many of them got. We also include in this section a look at another group, Native Americans, who were affected only indirectly by Reconstruction but whose plight was ultimately bound up with the same federal government as the one addressing the freedmen's concerns and whose own problems and complaints went largely ignored.

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