Black history in Ouachita County

Black history in Ouachita County

(Today's Camden News Black History Moment recognizes the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, a government organization set up after the Civil War to assist newly freed slaves acclimate to life in the south without the yolk of slavery. An office was set up in Camden in June of 1865 and served a seven-county area. The Freedmen's Bureau was housed in what was formerly a law office. The small, white building that now sits on the lot of the McCollum-Chidester House is the building that was used by the Freedmen agent, who wrote a report detailing the struggles in South Arkansas.)

According to, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands in March 1865 to help four million African Americans in the South make the transition from slavery to freedom and to help destitute white people with food and medical supplies in the dire days at the end of the Civil War. Headed by General Oliver Otis Howard, the Freedmen's Bureau was supervised in Arkansas by assistant commissioners General John W. Sprague (April 1865–September 1866), General Edward O. C. Ord (October 1866–March 1867), and General Charles H. Smith (March 1867–May 1869). The bureau attempted to help Arkansas's estimated 110,000 slaves become truly free as the Civil War ended.

Bureau agents supervised the Arkansas economy in the turmoil after the Civil War. Trying to negotiate fair contracts between planters and freedmen, bureau agents negotiated contracts that ranged from $5 to $60 a month for former slaves. Other agents turned to sharecropping and negotiated deals with planters that gave freedmen from one-eighth to three-fourths of the harvested crop. Bureau officers supervised working conditions and threatened to sue any planter who violated his contract with the freedmen. Some agents, realizing that former slaves needed to own their own land, encouraged them to settle on land made available by the Southern Homestead Act (1866). Over 1,000 African Americans entered claims for land during the bureau's tenure, and 250 of these actually completed their claims and received land.

Agents often tried to protect Black citizens' civil and political rights. During elections, when groups such as the Ku Klux Klan intimidated, abused, and killed scores of Black Arkansans and burned Black churches and schools, local agents monitored the situation and requested army troops when necessary. Many agents encouraged Black men to register to vote in elections that dealt with new constitutions and political officials. Agents encouraged Black men to support the party of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican Party.

Bureau officials tried to help reconstruct families that often had been ripped apart during slavery. Agents helped freedmen write advertisements for lost family members and provided funding for transportation that reunited many families. They paid religious and civil officials to perform wedding ceremonies that officially sanctioned such marriages, since marriages were not solemnized in churches under slavery.

Responding to the demands for schools, bureau agents funded new schools in Arkansas from monies donated by religious associations, Congress, the Arkansas legislature, and by Black citizens themselves. In 1868, for example, Black Arkansans contributed over one-third of the funds for building school facilities.

Sixty teachers (fifty Black and ten white) labored in Arkansas from 1868 to 1869 as Black people used reading and math skills to appraise their contracts, calculate their debt or profit at harvest time, and vote intelligently.

By the time of the bureau's withdrawal from Arkansas in 1869, over 40,000 African Americans had obtained basic literacy and math skills in over 149 schools.

Bureau agents confronted many challenges. Two agents were murdered in Fulton and Little River counties in the line of duty, and many more were threatened with death or beatings. This physical intimidation and coercion made it difficult to fill empty bureau positions, causing many local agencies to remain unmanned throughout Reconstruction.

An 1886 report to the bureau archived to the site

"Capt. Cole at Camden reports July 31st of Union County. 'I find affairs there deplorable in the extreme. Several Freedmen have been murdered under circumstances of great atrocity; others on the laying by of crops in which they were interested as remuneration for their labor, have been run away from their homes and their lives threatened if they returned or made complaint of it to this office. The feeling there against the Freedmen is most intense and bitter. In confirmation of these facts I have on file many affidavits containing testimony of the most incontrovertible characters.'

Again, Sept. 30th, Capt. Cole reports: 'There will in my opinion be very little chance for Freedmen to get their first dues from planters, unless they are compelled to come to the office of the Supt. when the settlement takes place. The people persist in trying to defraud the freedmen in every conceivable way.'