Simply by virtue of doing its work, the Freedmen’s Bureau amassed records of the stories, hopes, and disappointments of a people on the cusp of freedom. These documents reveal the agency of the newly emancipated: Freedom was not given but was seized and created by people who “made a way out of no way.” But the documents underscore how difficult the struggle was. Although they make the efforts of individuals and families visible and concrete, the records also reflect how the promise of Reconstruction was derailed by violence, northern apathy, and the rise of Jim Crow.
The documents unlock the names and experiences of people who are often invisible or silent in the conventional telling of history. A significant portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau papers reflect the importance of family, of reconnecting with kin separated by the vagaries of slavery, of protecting children. With freedom came an unyielding desire to find oneself by finding those who’d been sold away. The Freedmen’s Bureau, people hoped, could aid in restoring the bonds of family. In the documents, a freedwoman named Sina Smith described how her mother had been sold from Virginia to Tennessee “about eighteen years past … by Colonel Marshall.” Smith hoped that her mother, Eliza Williams, whom she was now able to “support … in her old age,” could be found, and noted that she was “a member of the Baptist Church” in Nashville.
Requests for assistance contained poignant details that might help locate a family member. A freedman named Hawkins Wilson wrote from Galveston, Texas, searching for his sisters, whom he had not seen in the 24 years since he’d been “sold at Sheriff’s sale” in Virginia. “One of my sisters, Jane,” he wrote, “belonged to Peter Coleman in Caroline County.” Wilson’s letter expressed a belief that the bureau could reconnect him with his family: “I am in hopes that they are still living … and I have no other one to apply to but you.” Wilson drafted an additional letter to be given to Jane. “Your little brother Hawkins is trying to find out where you are and where his poor old mother is … I shall never forget the bag of buiscuits you made for me the last night I spent with you.” He continued by saying he had led a good life and had “learned to read, and write a little.” He said that he hoped they might see each other, but added that if they did not “meet on earth, we might indeed meet in heaven.” Given that the letter remained in the files of the Freedmen’s Bureau, it is unlikely that Wilson was ever reunited with his family.