Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, May, 1995 Page: 85
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The Freedmen 's Bureau in Colorado County, Texas, 1865-1868
Indenturing did not come about because of the Civil War. It had long been
practiced in both the North and the South. Black and white orphans were apprenticed
due to a variety of circumstances. In the South, free black children could be and were
bound out if the parents did not exhibit the trait of industry. The law was so skewed that
it practically assured white success before the local courts. These types of laws and
practices were transferred to the postbellum era with only a change in the wording
describing the status of the child. It is impossible to ascertain how many black children
fell into this category, but it was a large enough number that the authorities took legal
steps to avoid any questions regarding who had authority over the children.
Children thus did not become a burden upon the public charge, much to the
relief of local and county officials. In certain particulars, binding out could actually be said
to be a form of adoption. Nevertheless, in the early years of Reconstruction, attempts
by whites to quickly bind black children without consulting the black community became
common enough that black adults became concerned. Real or fictive kin of such children
knew that local authorities would probably not assist them, therefore, whenever a
Freedmen's Bureau agent appeared in a town, they immediately approached him.
Whether they sought to break the indentures or simply to modify their terms, black
Texans found a sympathetic ear in the bureau.
Binding out children was not the same as hiring them out. Indenture involved
a lengthy term of service. The individual making the agreement had enormous control
over the child, quite similar, in fact, to that of a parent, though he had no blood ties. Hiring
out involved a much shorter tenure, generally from a few months to a maximum of one
year, and parents seem to have had much more influence in making certain their children
were treated fairly than they did in overseeing apprenticeship agreements. Texas blacks,
and those in other Southern states, endeavored to take care of their own, and bring
orphan or so-called "parentless" children into the confines of the black community.
In the three or four years immediately following the Civil War, apprenticing
created a tremendous stir among Southern blacks. During this time, they often turned
to the agents of the Freedmen's Bureau for assistance in annulling such agreements and
regaining control of their children. The former slaves also used the bureau and the military
to reclaim members of their families who had not been apprenticed but were nonetheless
being forcibly detained, with no legal basis, by whites. In the latter situations, the military
could and did intervene to release black children.
In Texas, blacks did not become free until June 19, 1865, and the assistant
commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau did not arrive until September. During the
interval, white Texans took advantage of the confusion surrounding emancipation, the
legal limbo in which blacks found themselves, and sympathetic local officials who were
willing to bind black children for long periods. Until the Freedmen's Bureau became more
widely established, local blacks had few options. Courts, generally manned by former
rebels, often believed that orphan black children were better off bound to white families.
They quickly shunted aside black objections to this practice and many indentured
children for a decade or more.
A major problem that confronted the agents, and now confronts historians,
is the precise definition of the term "orphan." It can be persuasively argued that a small
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Nesbitt Memorial Library. Nesbitt Memorial Library Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, May, 1995, periodical, May 1995; Columbus, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth151394/m1/17/?q=nesbitt%20memorial%20library%20journal: accessed January 20, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Nesbitt Memorial Library.