The value Black people placed on education and its central connection to freedom, democracy, and civic values long predated the Civil War. Between the 1830s and the 1890s, more than 200 state and national Colored Conventions were held. By the time of the second such convention in 1831, education had a central position in the Convention’s proceedings. This fervor for education was reflected in “An Act to Establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees,”[1] which Congress narrowly passed on March 3, 1865. Thus the “Freedmen’s Bureau,” as it came to be known, was created and placed within the federal War Department. Initially, the Freedmen’s Bureau was charged with providing food, shelter, and medical care to displaced Southerners and newly emancipated Black people to help them attain self-sufficiency. Under the leadership of its first and only director, General Oliver Howard, who wrote that “education underlies the success for the freedman,”[2], the Freedmen’s Bureau quickly put education at the forefront of its agenda. In the seven years it existed, the Freedmen’s Bureau spent up to two-thirds of its budget on education and created the position of general superintendent of education within the Bureau.[3]

The educational agency mission was accomplished by assisting northern benevolent societies in establishing schools throughout the South, including Florida. In Florida, the Freedmen’s Bureau’s educational efforts began officially in 1867 with appointment of the first inspector and superintendent of schools.  These entities established day schools for children, night schools for adults, and Sabbath Schools. Typically, the Bureau paid for the buildings and teacher transportation, and the benevolent societies were responsible for textbooks and teacher salaries. The Freedmen’s Bureau maintained its Florida field office in several cities including Tallahassee, St. Augustine, and Jacksonville. The Freedmen’s Bureau was never intended to be a permanent fixture in the federal government and in 1867, Congress created the short-lived Department of Education, charged with educating all children, white and Black. This department was caught in the states’ rights movement, with the role of the federal government in education being hotly debated. The Department of Education was demoted to the Office of Education, which was located in several different departments until President Jimmy Carter signed it back into existence in 1979.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was perceived with great distrust by segregationists in the South. Initially, there was great resistance by white people to educate Black people. White Floridians refused to board teachers and blocked access to any buildings that could be used as schools. To thwart school attendance, the Florida Legislature in 1866 passed a law requiring that Black students be charged $0.50 per month and that Black males between the ages of 21 and 45 be assessed a dollar per year to finance Black schools. The Legislature further tried to thwart Northern educators from teaching by charging an annual fee of $5 to maintain teacher certification. The Bureau worked to convince white planters that it would benefit them to have a workforce that could read and write, and this created some buy-in. The Bureau, prohibited from paying teachers’ salaries, was able to circumvent this by providing buildings for schools and then paying rent for the buildings, which was then used to pay salaries. By 1869, the state of Florida had established a public education system; however, the Bureau spent three times as much for Black and white children’s education as the state did. By 1870, Congress ended the Bureau’s work in education and closed the Florida field office. The educational work of the Bureau lived beyond it with the help of the northern benevolent societies and in no small measure by the value, esteem, and eagerness for learning among emancipated Black people.




[1] 13 Stat. 507

[2] Derek W. Black, “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy”, 2020, New York: Public Affairs – Hachette Book Group, p.121.

[3] Derek W. Black, “Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on American Democracy”, 2020, New York: Public Affairs – Hachette Book Group.