In Octavia Butler's science fiction novel, Kindred, the main character, Dana, travels through time to the early 19th century and to the Eastern Shore of Maryland where her ancestors are slaves. Dana's experience reveals the life faced by her great grandparents. Through their lives, the novel exposes part of the history of American race relations. Twentieth century students do not have the superhuman abilities of this fictional character, nor do they typically employ the literary imagination of science fiction writers to describe the past. However, attempting to reconstruct the history of racism, especially from the perspective of Black Americans, may make you wish you had these supernatural powers. Historical records have largely overlooked the experience of Black Americans, particularly from their own point of view.
Despite these gaps, understanding the past provides clues for changing the future. By studying African American history, students can learn new ways to confront racism--to recognize it when it occurs, to think about its consequences (for both people of color and whites), and to change how people behave and think. This paper explores the racial history of one part of the Delmarva Peninsula--the Eastern Shore of Maryland--with the purpose of understanding how this history has led to contemporary patterns of race relations in the area.
To the contemporary visitor, the Eastern Shore of Maryland is a prosperous and alluring area. Fictional accounts of the Eastern Shore, such as James Michener's Chesapeake or John Barth's Sabbatical, make it seem a genteel land, rich in historical past, but also intriguing in its present. Here, wealthy classes cruise on lavish yachts, stately mansions recall traditions of the past, and quaint, small towns suggest tranquility in contemporary life. If approached by water, the privacy of secluded coves of the bay also promises that the Eastern Shore provides retreat from the noise, pollution, traffic, and fast-lived pace of nearby metropolitan areas.
Yet, there is a dual reality here--one hidden in small, all black hamlets that do not, in many cases, even appear on road maps and do not front the bay waters, as do the privileged acres of the rich. The dual reality is perhaps no better described than by Frederick Douglass, himself a slave 150 years ago on the estate of Edward Lloyd, the Eastern Shore's largest slaveholder. The sailing ships that contemporary visitors today covet and admire were, to Douglass, symbols of the oppression of black people. Standing on the shores of the Chesapeake, he wrote, "Those beautiful vessels, robed in white and so delightful to the eyes of freemen, were to me so many shrouded ghosts to terrify and torment me with thoughts of my wretched condition."
To this day, the inequality that marked the region's past persists in the income inequality, residential segregation, and different life opportunities for most whites and blacks. Talbot County (the wealthiest of the nine counties on the Eastern Shore) has a population of 30,353 persons (18 percent of whom are black) and is reported to have over 200 millionaires. In Kent County, where this research took place, the 1989 median income for white households was $31,382. For black households, $19,850--only 63 percent of white median income. Inequality between whites and blacks in this county is further demonstrated by the skewed character of income distribution. In 1989, 22.4 percent of black families in Talbot County and 16.4 percent in Kent County lived below the federal poverty line, compared to 3.2 percent of white families in Talbot County and 5 percent of white families in Kent County. In the same year, 28 percent of black households in the county had incomes of less than $10,000 per year, compared with 12 percent of white households.
Less than 100 miles from metropolitan Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C., the region seems like an anachronism in that the yachts, fashionable shops, and luxury automobiles seen there are clearly symbolic of contemporary class relations, but the juxtaposition of rurally segregated black communities and paternalistic relations between whites and blacks evoke a strong feeling that the past is still present.
Although most people think of slavery in terms of big cotton plantations in the Deep South, it was in the area surrounding the Chesapeake Bay--Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia--where slavery originated and where it flourished for almost 200 years prior to the development of big cotton plantations in the South. Before l790, when the cotton industry in the Deep South began to boom, two-thirds of the U.S. slave population was concentrated on the lands surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, including tidewater Virginia and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia. With waterfront properties that suited international transportation systems of the time and the virtual elimination of native American societies, this area was rich for the cultivation of tobacco and, later, wheat; these became the staple crops for both domestic and international trade. The labor of black slaves, the majority of whom on Maryland's Eastern Shore were imported from the West Indies, was central to this growing trade. So important was black labor to this economy, Maryland was the first state to create formal laws distinguishing indentured servants and slaves (in 1660).
How does the racial history of this region inform us about the present? Like knowing the biography of a good friend, understanding the present means knowing the past. Through the 17th century, slavery on the Eastern Shore remained on a small-scale. Not until 1685 were slaves imported to the Eastern Shore in substantial numbers; most planters during the seventeenth century owned relatively small amounts of land. During the 17th century, those who rose to affluence were the white men who combined planting with other profitable pursuits--merchandising, money lending, land speculation, law, manufacturing, and commerce.
Throughout the 18th century, a society based on a plantation economy crystallized on the Eastern Shore, creating a small elite of white merchant-planters, a large class of modestly well-off white householders, a geographically mobile class of poor whites, and enslaved black laborers. Even so, the plantation system on the Eastern Shore never reached the same proportions as it did in the antebellum South. As late as 1790, the peak of slave society in Maryland, less than three percent of Talbot County slaveowners had more than 20 slaves, whereas 25 percent of southern slaves lived on plantations of 50 or more. Thus, slavery in Maryland through the 18th century can be characterized as domestic, not plantation slavery--the distinction being that slave families lived in close proximity to white families and large plantations were the exception rather than the rule. Rates of manumission (i.e., freeing slaves) in Maryland were also relatively high compared to other slave states and the state of Maryland contained a larger proportion of free blacks than any other slave state except Delaware.
Frequent periods of economic depression on the Eastern Shore brought more than usual impoverishment to slaves and free persons in the area. The relative isolation of the region also fostered more severe treatment of slaves than in some other areas of the country. Historical records also indicate that free blacks were sometimes materially worse off than slaves, although these claims are suspect, coming as they do from the records of slaveowners.
Historical records also indicate that runaway slaves from the Eastern Shore constituted a large proportion of those who escaped on the Underground Railroad, although accurate estimates of runaways are impossible to make. Slaves themselves perceived that their fate would be worse further south, at least as evidenced by the accounts of runaways who report fleeing when they thought they might be sold further south. Slaves' fears of the Deep South stemmed primarily from their fear they would be further separated from family members. They also recognized that being sold south was the owner's ultimate threat, and they feared the unknown.
At the end of the Civil War, black Americans on the Eastern Shore faced the social and economic problems that persistent racism presented. There was a strong "color line" between blacks and whites. The previous system of a slavery-based economy was thrown into disarray, but new patterns quickly emerged that perpetuated a racially oppressive system of labor, solidified racial segregation, and instigated new forms of racial violence. The Freedmen's Bureau played a critical role in this newly emerging social order.
Re-Constructing African American History
Reconstructing the history of African Americans and other oppressed groups, however, has been difficult because of large gaps and omissions in the historical records. The historical record that has been left (in the form of letters, official records, and other documents) is one largely written by white Americans. Whites had access to education, and, therefore, to literacy. It is through the papers of white elites that much of what is known about slavery and the history of race relations has been constructed. Some of the largest collections of documents about the Eastern Shore, for example, are the letters and papers of the most prosperous slaveowners in the region. Supported by the development and evolution of African American studies, historians and other scholars have, however, worked hard to locate other historical records that can also be used to understand history as it was experienced by African American people.
Some of these historical materials reveal the lived experience of racism. Personal documents like letters and diaries give contemporary people a feel for the past that is rarely created through less personal historical archives. Such records, especially when written by ordinary people, also reveal African American resistance to racial oppression. These revelations can inspire contemporary visions for social change.
This paper is based on letters collected in the Freedmen's Bureau papers, collected in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and available for public examination. The National Archives is a public resource housing many of the nation's most valuable documents. Anyone can use these archives, although it takes some training and experience to know how to do so.
The Freedmen's Bureau letters can be used to understand what happened in the United States following the end of slavery. At this time, one form of society was being replaced by another, as social institutions that had been built on slavery were being re-created to accommodate newly freed people. What happened to black people during this period is important to understanding the transition to new forms of racism that characterize the 20th century.
The Freedmen's Bureau letters are also one of the few primary records of African American experience in the Reconstruction period. Organized by state, they include letters to and from the Freedmen's Bureau between 1865 and 1869. For this research, I read letters from the state of Maryland, including all letters to and from the Eastern Shore region (1,127 letters). These letters reveal, often in graphic terms, the problems experienced by black men and women following slavery. They also provide evidence of the beliefs blacks and whites had about each other. Although most of the letters were written by Freedmen's Bureau agents, most of whom were presumably white, some were written by black women or men seeking assistance from the Bureau. Reading these letters is a deeply moving experience, hard to recapture in print, although perhaps one example illustrates how poignant the letters can be:
August 25, 1864
Mr president It is my Desire to be free. to go to see my people on the eastern shore. my mistress wont let me you will please let me know if we are free. and what I can do. I write to you for advice. please send word this week or as soon as possible and oblidge.
These letters provide a compelling portrait of the lives and struggles
of newly freed African American men and women on the Eastern Shore
and allow us see the transformations in race relations that followed
the Civil War.
The Freedmen's Bureau in an Age of Conflict
When it was first established, the Freedmen's Bureau was encouraged both by abolitionists and by industrial leaders of the cotton industry who had been hostile to abolition. Despite its image as a social welfare agency for newly freed black people, the Freedmen's Bureau was meant to facilitate the transition from slavery to freedom and to restore the southern economy and the North's supply of cheap and abundant cotton. As one scholar has concluded, the "Freedmen's Bureau became the chief instrument for organizing a system of contract labor that reduced the Black population of the South to a state of virtual peonage."
Although the Freedmen's Bureau served dominant economic interests, it was the only federal agency to which newly freed Black people could turn for assistance following slavery. Agents in the Bureau, perhaps like their contemporary counterparts in social service agencies, were, for the most part, probably well-intentioned people who saw themselves as working on behalf of newly freed black women and men. The agents, however, were not immune from the racial attitudes that permeated U.S. society; their attitudes permeated their understandings of the needs and problems of black people, resulting in their promoting a system of labor that re-created patterns of racial inequality that have characterized the Eastern Shore ever since.
Despite these beginnings, the Freedmen's Bureau was the only Federal agency to which blacks could turn for social and economic assistance. Although the Bureau was intended to be a military agency where black soldiers could settle claims for bounties and pensions due them, the Bureau's activities extended to a wide range of other social and economic assistance. In Maryland, the Bureau's activities fell into seven major areas:
Agents of the Bureau, many of whom were former soldiers or officers, varied greatly in their commitments to black emancipation and their sympathies for the plight of black persons. Often with evangelical zeal, agents saw themselves as teachers and disciplinarians; their racism is often evident in their recorded images of black people as unreliable, indolent, childlike, and needing governance by whites. In writing about the Freedmen's Bureau schools, for example, agents seemed more concerned with the moral influence of the schools than with what schools taught and their impact on black literacy. More than anything, Freedmen's Bureau agents wanted order and peace. As one reports, "I learn from reliable sources that the moral effect of the Bureau in the State and the occasional visits of its officers through the counties have done much more towards preserving harmony and preventing abuses than we had anticipated." Another agent, reporting from Easton, described a school with nearly 100 children in attendance and two female teachers and seemed pleased to see, "scholars very obedient, attentive, and learning their lessons well."
Despite their expressed support for Freedmen's Bureau schools, in the agents' eyes, the schools were primarily supervisory. In fact, the Bureau provided only partial support for schools, because it had limited funds for education and relied on local benevolent organizations to organize and finance the schools. As a consequence, black people themselves sometimes paid the salaries and provided board for teachers.
Much of the Bureau's work was in response to racial violence, common on the Eastern Shore. Incidents of violence against black teachers, for example, were common on the Eastern Shore, indicative of the threat that education for blacks posed to the system of racism. Educated people are more likely to have the skills to organize for change: denying people an education or creating conditions that make getting one difficult, are ways that dominant groups control others. Agents of the Freedmen's Bureau were frequently called to the Eastern Shore to investigate reports of violence. Reports like this are common in the letters:
"I arrived at Easton May 1 (1866) at 12 o'clock. The Court being in Session the Town was full of People from the surrounding Country. From their conversation among themselves and with me, I found nearly all bitterly opposed to the Government By Reason of the Release of their Slaves and very much prejudiced against every person who takes an Interest in the Wellfare of the unfortunate inoffensive col.d Race. The col.d People to whom I applied for Information are afraid to speak or complain, for fear of being murdered in open Day. I went to the Judge of the Court, to ascertain what Steps had been taken to arrest the murderer of Ed. Sherwood cold. who was shot and instantly killed on Sunday last, while quietly walking to Church, and was informed that James Kent Harper (Son of Dr. Harper of Easton Md.) and late a Rebel Soldier, has been indicted by the Grand Jury for this murder and that efforts were made by the Sheriff to arrest him. But I also ascertained that the Murderer remained undisturbed in town until Monday, when he publicly left on his father's horse. I would respectfully recommend that the Governor of Md. be requested to offer a suitable Reward for his Arrest."
In another incident, an agent reports:
"I proceeded on the 13th of June  to the town of Galena, Kent County, Md., arrived at that place on the 14th, called on the Justice of the Peace of that section, Mr. John T. Hurtt, informed him of my business, exhibited to him the sworn statement of Nicholas Brown, David Tilson, and other colored citizens of the town of Galena, to the effect that they had been generally maltreated and abused by the white inhabitants of that town and more particularly by one George Christfield, Andrew Christfield and others. I asked the Justice whether he was willing to prosecute the white offenders against the law, named in the affidavits and see that the colored complainants had the full enjoyment of the rights conferred upon them by an act of Congress, more commonly called the "Civil rights bill". Mr. Hurtt assured me that he would give them now, or at any time, a fair impartial trial, that he however had not been practising the custom to have colored persons appear before him as witnesses, unless they were parties themselves in the offense committed, that he only knew of the "Civil rights bill" by hearsay, of its contents he knew nothing whatever and requested me to furnish him by letter with a copy of the act."
In this letter, the agent goes on to report:
"In Chestertown, the better class of citizens, although they are strongly prejudiced against the colored race, seem disposed to treat them fairly and kindly, but there is a class of young men from 16-20 years old generally, in Chestertown and vicinity, who without any provocation whatever, will kick, beat, and abuse every colored boy or man coming near them, without being interfered with in the least by either authorities or citizens. I witnessed with my own eyes and ears two cases of this kind, one of these I will state briefly as it conveys a fair illustration of the anti-negro rowdydom practiced in that section of the Country: A number of young men were standing in front of the barroom in the basement of the principal hotel, when a whitehaired old colored man walked along the street, he was hailed by the party with: Hold on you old nigger where are you going to and other questions having stopped him, he was repeatedly asked what his business was, he answered he was going to see his son, one of the party asked him who his son was and he answered that his son was living at a certain place, and that he had been in the army, that was sufficient cause to punish the old man and one of the rowdies struck him over the head and kicked him, meanwhile the white spectators laughed in chorus; such expressions as: 'I'll lay him low",'he ought to be killed", "d-d nigger son-of-" and others are very common with that class of rowdies! In Galena it is worse than in Chestertown for the colored people, they are abused and maltreated wherever met, although respectable white persons never molest them, every Saturday night they have a niggerhunt in Galena and woe to the poor colored girl, boy, or man who is observed on the street after 6 o'clock p.m.!"
Conditions were so bad in this region of Maryland that in 1866 the Assistant Commissioner reported that in "the seven lower counties where much bad feeling exists, and frequent complaints are received of outrages and atrocities without parallel committed against the Freedmen. In many instances where officers have been sent to investigate complaints in the counties mentioned, the complainants will make no charge, fearing personal injury from their oppressors so soon as the officer has left the vicinity."
Black citizens feared reprisals if they reported complaints to the Freedmen's Bureau. When they did bring complaints or try to settle claims, the Bureau, overwhelmed by paperwork and with inadequate personnel and financial resources, often could not settle the claims before them. Even when Bureau agents pursued
complaints, their usual recourse was to bring the matter before civil authorities who routinely violated federal law by refusing to comply with federal civil rights legislation. Bureau agents were obviously frustrated by the obstacles placed in the way of their work by local courts. In several incidents, Bureau agents brought charges against local justices who had refused (in violation of the 1866 Civil Rights Bill) to hear testimony from "colored witnesses." In January 1867, the Maryland state legislature passed an act prohibiting the testimony of "colored persons," in direct contradiction to Federal law. Many of the letters in the Freedmen's Bureau documents record the frustration of Freedmen's Bureau agents who routinely had their cases dismissed by grand juries or local judges. One agent of the Bureau was so frustrated by local authorities that he reported that when crimes by whites were brought to trial, the magistrate was in sympathy with the accused and dismissed the case or set bail so low, "as to practically make such cases a farce, and they are virtually at liberty to commence their crimes with increased relish."
Sometimes, agents were determined to exercise justice but were subject to orders from above that diminished their ability to act. The case of Alcida Francis Warner illustrates this situation well. On June 12, 1866, Alcida Warner, a 13 year old black child, wrote:
"On the 27th day of May 1866, while coming from Blusall's house in Maryland Heights where I was employed as a servant, on my way home to my mother's house in Sandy Hook, Maryland, I was waylaid by one John Kellum (white), my person most brutally mutilated and violated and my life threatened if I divulged his name."
When the case came before Justice Watkins of Sandy Hook, he refused to hear the complaint and wrote to Freedmen's Bureau agent Robinus:
"In my reply to you as requested in the first place, the girl is not a competent witness and if there had been only the state's evidence I would have had him arrested but you know it is my bound duty to avoid all cost from the state. I have even felt with regret the awfule condition of the colored people but I cannot find anything in the law to justify an issue."
Watkins still refused to hear the case, and Inspector Robinus arranged for a second justice of the peace to issue charges against Kellum for assault and rape. Kellum was arrested, but when he appeared in court, again before Justice Watkins, Watkins said he would not take the evidence of a colored person. Watkins was subsequently arrested by a U.S. Marshall and the Grand Jury of the U.S. District Court heard the testimony of Inspector Robinus. The newly-appointed district attorney, however, insisted on bringing the case not before the district court, but before the U.S. Circuit Court some months hence. In the meantime, Inspector Robinus, who had diligently pursued the case, was ordered to report to Charleston, South Carolina and, subsequently, the case disappeared from the Freedmen's Bureau records.
The frustration of Bureau agents in dealing with local courts is especially apparent in their investigations of illegal child apprenticeships. Following slavery, slaveowners found other ways to hold black laborers--one of which was child apprenticeships. Letters in the archives of the Freedmen's Bureau indicate that a majority of former slaveowners held several bound minors. Owners virtuously expressed the belief that they were protecting the children, and the apprenticeships were for the children's own good. A Centreville planter kept one boy, in his words, because, "his mother is not qualified to take care of him for she is very worthless herself and the boy is very small and not large enough to be worth any wages." He paid wages to her other boy and even made the claim that "they would have all be dead this day had it not been for me." Yet, an agent of the Bureau wrote, "It is a noticeable fact that these philanthropists only bro't forward for binding such children as would be of service to themselves and children below 11 years of age were left to the tender mercies of their parents."
Children were a form of cheap labor for former slaveowners--cheaper than even the meager wages paid to adults. Girls were also paid less than boys--an early example of gender discrimination coupled with racial discrimination. The Bureau recorded the wage rate on the Eastern Shore as
"Harvest hands: $2-2.50 per day: Field Hands $15 to $20 per month. House servants (female) from $6 - $8 per month. Minor boys from 12 to 14 years of age $50 per year clothing and subsistence. Girls of same age: $25 per year clothing and board."
In cases where the Freedmen's Bureau tried to return apprenticed children to their parents, owners sometimes demanded the parents pay for the "trouble" they had gone to in keeping the child.
Black parents brought numerous complaints to the Freedmen's Bureau that their children were being illegally bound to former owners. In Maryland, the number of apprenticeships tripled in the years following the Emancipation Act. In 1867, 4,212 apprentices were identified by the Bureau in Maryland. Bureau agents clearly saw the practice as illegal and immoral but were greatly hampered in their efforts to free the children by the practices of local courts. The Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau in Maryland wrote,
"...A large majority of the complaints received refer to the illegal apprenticing of colored children, until they are eighteen and twenty one years of age, which is in fact a phase of slavery. No language can be to strong in condemnation of this evil. Parents are deprived of those who are able and willing to support them while children are denied the blessings of education and doomed to spend long years in toil and servitude without an adequate compensation. In most cases this is done in compliance with legal forms, but there is every reason to suppose from statements made by parents that misrepresentation and threats have been used to compel their attendance at Orphan's Court which attenda nce considered equivalent to their consent and in many cases not even the attendance of the parent was considered necessary to sanction the compact."
Children could not be legally apprenticed without the consent of parents, but former owners threatened parents who sought the return of their children. In one case, found in these letters, Harriet Johnson, a black mother, demanded the return of her 13-year-old daughter, Adeline Waters who had been a slave to William Stevens. Mrs. Stevens told her if she, "would pay two hundred dollars for the child she could have her and not otherwise." According to Harriet Johnson's affidavit before the Freedmen's Bureau,
"... [she] appeared before the Orphan's Court of Kent County at the time the child was to be bound out and stated to the Orphan's Court that she objected and would not consent that her child should be bound out by the court to Mr. Stevens--that the Orphan's Court paid no regard to the objections of this deponent but proceeded to bind her said daughter out to Mr. Stevens without the consent of this deponent and against her express objections--that about a week after her child was bound out to Mr. Stevens aforesaid--this deponent called upon Mr. Stevens in relation to her child and Mr. Stevens became very much excited and in an angry and excited manner swore and declared to deponent that if she gave him any trouble about her daughter that this would be too hot to hold her--adding to the declaration a wicked oath. This violence on the part of Mr. Stevens alarmed deponent and she was afraid to take any steps toward obtaining her child until she was informed by some white persons that it was not lawful for Mr. Stevens to hold her child in any such manner."
The court informed William Stevens on July 25, 1866 that affidavits and complaints had been entered against him, but Adeline Waters was not returned to her mother until Christmas 1867.
The Freedmen's Bureau routinely had to send second and third inquiries for the release of illegally bound children and threatened owners with legal suit if the children were not returned to their parents. Owners typically claimed the children were free to leave but did not want to; or, the owners claimed the parents were mentally or financially incompetent to raise the child. Occasionally, the Bureau complied with the owner and allowed the apprenticeship to stand, but in most cases, the Bureau took the position that, "It is our duty to insist upon the unqualified restoration of those children to their mother. We are determined to aid the parents of bound children and prevent any advantage being taken of their ignorance."
In 1868, a U.S. Circuit Court in Baltimore declared involuntary apprenticeships unconstitutional, based on the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which defines blacks and whites as equal citizens, entitled to the same protections and provisions for security. While Maryland agents of the Freedmen's Bureau had previously been frustrated by the obstinacy of local authorities and former slaveowners to terminate child apprenticeships, they were now optimistic about the elimination of this practice and were especially persistent in pursuing cases of illegal apprenticeships. The Freedmen's Bureau in Maryland was terminated in 1868 by order of the Secretary of War. When the Maryland Bureau closed in 1868, 145 cases of forced apprenticeships had been brought to the Bureau that year. Sixty-one of these cases were still pending when the office closed.
The letters of the Freedmen's Bureau reveal the violence, oppression, and frustrations for black people that followed slavery and emancipation. This period in history ushered in new forms of race relations, but ones that mirrored race relations in slavery: exploitation of black labor, residential segregation, poor education, and reign by terror. Many of the separate black towns that now mark the Eastern Shore of Maryland were established at this time. Former slaveowners sometimes built housing for black workers on the margins of their property. These communities became the home for several generations of black families--many of whom continue to live in these segregated, rural communities.
What lessons do we learn from examining the Freedmen's Bureau? Here we see well-intentioned white people often frustrated by the action of others, and black people who, with no other recourse, had to rely on their limited resources to seek social justice. In the face of overwhelming oppression, they worked hard to provide education, shelter, and community for their children. The racial norms of the time would seldom have allowed well-meaning whites to form alliances with black Americans and certainly many, perhaps most, white people conformed to the racial prejudice and actions of the time. One wonders if the moral fervor that Freedmen's Bureau agents brought to their jobs had been used to create a racially just society, if rather than working to re-create a disrupted social order, Reconstruction might have ushered in a more racially just world.
In the end, the Freedmen's Bureau and those who worked within it helped to reinstate a system of racial inequality that still characterizes race relations on the Eastern Shore. Had more white people challenged the status quo and made alliances with black men and women, perhaps the future would have been different. Maybe that is the lesson learned from these documents: Rather than re-creating the injustices of history, people can use their human skills and spirit to organize for racial justice. No doubt, just as those who now work in social service organizations are often frustrated by bureaucratic procedures, lack of resources, and the attitudes and actions of those in power, the Freedmen's Bureau agents were frustrated by the intransigence of racism. But, throughout history, people have challenged the social systems that rob people of human dignity and human rights; the long history of the civil rights movement is proof of this. The story of the Freedmen's Bureau is not a complete history of this place or time. We do not see in these letters how black people organized over the years to challenge the racism they confronted. Nor do we see the work of whites who have allied themselves with progressive causes. By learning more about the conditions under which people have organized for change and seeing the transformations in race relations over time, we can find models for future actions.
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Last Updated: August 4, 1997