Why an 1860s Agency That Helped Newly Freed Blacks May Return to California

During its most recent hearing, the California Indemnification Task Force voted in favor of a recommendation to revive a modern version of the Freedmen’s Bureau — a comprehensive agency created in 1865 to aid formerly enslaved blacks — to administer any indemnity-related benefits in the state.

A nine-member California task force, led by Gov. Gavin Newsom, has spent two years exploring the depth of harm caused by racism in the state and beyond. During a public hearing earlier this month in Sacramento, the task force agreed with chair Camila Moore to recommend a government agency called the Freedom Affairs Agency that would operate similarly to the Freedmen’s Bureau.

The task force said its recommendations for redress would include monetary compensation and the installation of programs to address longstanding systemic inequalities. Ensuring centralized oversight of these proposals was a major concern for both the target group and those present at the public hearings.

“We need these programs you talk about to be held accountable,” a man from Hayward, about 90 miles south of Sacramento, told the task force. “The last thing we need is for this to be a scam and for people to line their pockets.”

The task force’s recommendations will be evaluated by state legislators, who will propose policies to be passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Newsom.

“We know the Legislature is going to do what it wants to do,” Moore said. “Why don’t we go as far as we can?”

Gloria Piero-Dyer during a public comment meeting of the Indemnification Task Force meeting in Sacramento, California on March 3, 2023.
Gloria Piero-Dyer during a public comment meeting of the Indemnification Task Force meeting in Sacramento, California on March 3, 2023. Paul Kitagaki Jr./Sacramento Bee/TNS via Getty Images

The agency will “give ongoing special attention to descendants of American slaves,” the chairman added, with a general counsel, chief financial officer, communications, genealogy, and research, among other resources.

What is the Friedman Bureau?

The short-lived but effective Freedmen’s Bureau was created by Congress shortly after the abolition of slavery in America and served the 4 million newly freed black Americans to find clothing, food and shelter, and helped with relocation and medical care. The bureau opened offices in 15 cities in the South and the border states, where it established schools, legalized marriages, and oversaw land purchases, among many other services.

For the first three years, his goal was to help former slaves become self-reliant. He assisted the newly freed in their transition from slavery by negotiating employment contracts, legalizing marriages and locating lost relatives. He also provided food, housing, education, and medical care to more than 4 million people, including poor whites and war-displaced veterans.

Its influence was significant before it was dissolved in 1872 due to funding problems caused by racial animosity. Southern whites, upset that blacks were being given the opportunity to lead a stable life, put such intense pressure on the government that it dissolved the agency after only seven years.

The Bureau has created a huge database of slavery periods before Reconstruction, making it a valuable resource for genealogists and historians.

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