Educator Resources

Post Civil War: Freedmen and Civil Rights


In the aftermath of the Civil War, African Americans adapted to life as free people with the help of Black church leaders as well as a federal organization known as the Freedmen's Bureau. The Bureau helped freedmen establish schools, purchase land, and legalize their marriages, however, funding limitations and deeply held racist attitudes forced the Bureau to close in 1872. African Americans were largely abandoned to contend on their own with persistent racial attitudes and discrimination. Many continued to work for their former masters as sharecroppers or tenant farmers in a vicious cycle of debt peonage.

Refer to Caption Complaint in the case of Morgan v. Hennigan

The Freedmen's Bureau

The Freedmen's Bureau helped free African-Americans legalize their marriages, attend school, and buy property. Examine records of the field offices of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Petitions of Edmund and Mary S. Kinney

Refer to CaptionKinney Habeas Corpus Petition

Examine court documents from the case of Mary and Edmund Kinney, an interracial married couple arrested in Virginia in 1879:

Petitions of Edmund and Mary S. Kinney (A.K.A. Mary S. Hall) for a Writ of Habeas Corpus

Edmund and Mary Kinney petitioned the court for a Writ of Habeas Corpus because they believed they were unjustly arrested for marrying as an interracial couple in Reconstruction era Virginia. They contented that marriage is a contract and that their freedom of contract, guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment, was violated. A petition is a formal request to the court to take action.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Do you agree with the petition of Mary and Edmund Kinney that marriage is a type of contract, guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution? Why or why not?

  2. What positive changes did Freedmen experience with the introduction of the Freedmen's Bureau?

  3. How did the lives of African-Americans change after the Freedmen's Bureau ceased to function?

  4. How was life as a Freedman similar to life under slavery?

Activity from, the National Archives' Online Tool for Teaching with Documents

In the activity "How Effective were the Efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau?," students will analyze documents from the War Department’s Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands — better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — that Congress established on March 3, 1865, as the Civil War was coming to an end. Using a scale to "Weigh the Evidence," students will evaluate the effectiveness of the Freedmen’s Bureau in assisting formerly enslaved persons.