Hidden Sources of Black History: The Texas
Freedmen's Bureau Records as a Case Study
BARRY A. CROUCH*
THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES OFFICIALLY OPENED IN 1935 AND THREE
years later a short article appeared discussing a portion of its hold
ings relevant to blacks. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Aban-
doned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was not even
mentioned in passing. A decade later Roland C. McConnell observed
that the Bureau records included such "materials for both headquar-
ters and field office as reports on Freedmen's camps; labor contracts;
distribution of rations, clothing, and medicine; abandoned lands; aid to
schools; arrests and outrages; and the care of refugees." But it was merely
an elementary listing with no further elaboration.
Only in the past decade or so have major numbers of historians come
to realize just how significant the Bureau papers are in comprehending
black aspirations and life during the post-Civil War years, especially
those first critical months of freedom. Supplemented by other vital origi-
nal material, such as manuscript census returns, army sources, plantation
records, oral interviews, ex-slave accounts, personal manuscripts, gov-
ernors' papers, and local materials, the Bureau records provide an
invaluable source of data about what was taking place in black com-
munities across the South during Reconstruction.
Scholars of Reconstruction, it has been argued, know "too little about
what the Negroes wanted" during this turbulent period. Since blacks
left few written sources for the era, historians must turn to other ma-
terials bearing directly on the ex-slave's impressions of freedom. The
records of the Freedmen's Bureau, in this instance, "are exceedingly re-
*Barry A. Crouch is a resident of Annapolis, Maryland. He wishes to thank Richard K.
Fleischman, Stanley L. Engerman, Kathie G. Reed, Margaret R. Connors, and Lawrence
H. Madaras for their criticism and comments.
1James R. Mock, "The National Archives with Respect to the Records of the Negro,"
Journal of Negro History, XXIII (Jan., 1938), 49-56; Roland C. McConnell, "Importance
of Records in the National Archives on the History of the Negro," ibid., XXXIV (Apr.,
1949), 148 (quotation). See also Waldo Gifford Leland, "The National Archives: A Pro-
gramme," American Historical Review, XVIII (Oct., 1912), 1-28, especially 4; Edward G.
Campbell, "The National Archives Faces the Future," ibid., XLIX (Apr., 1944), 441-445;
Kenneth Turan, "The Archives," Potomac [supplement of the Washington Post], Dec.,
15, 1974, pp. 14-15, 23, 25-28.
Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 83, July 1979 - April, 1980. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth101207/. Accessed May 31, 2016.