National Museum of African American History and Culture

Records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–1870


Collection ID:
Physical Description:
20,203 Digital files
The collection is comprised of digital surrogates previously available on the 20 rolls of microfilm described in the NARA publication M1053. These digital surrogates reproduced the records of the Superintendent of Education for the State of Virginia, Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, 1865–70. The records consist of 11 volumes and of unbound documents. The volumes include letters and endorsements sent and registers of letters received and endorsements sent. The unbound records consist primarily of letters received and reports.

Historical Note

Historical Note
[The following is reproduced from the original NARA descriptive pamphlet for M1053.]
The Freedmen's Bureau, as the Bureau was commonly known, was established in the War Department by an act of March 3, 1865 (13 Stat. 507), and extended twice by acts of July 16, 1866 (14 Stat. 173), and July 6, 1868 (15 Stat. 83). Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, appointed Commissioner by the President in May 1865, served in that position throughout the existence of the Bureau. In January 1869, in accordance with an act of July 25, 1868 (15 Stat. 193), Bureau operations in the States were terminated except for educational functions and the collection of claims. These activities were terminated June 30, 1872, as required by an act of June 10, 1872 (17 Stat. 366).
Although the Bureau was part of the War Department, its work was primarily social and economic in nature. It cooperated with benevolent societies in issuing supplies to destitute persons and in maintaining freedmen's schools; supervised labor contracts between black employees and white employers; helped black soldiers and sailors collect bounty claims, pensions, and backpay; and attended to the disposition of confiscated or abandoned lands and other property.
The act of March 3, 1865, authorized the appointment of assistant commissioners to aid the Commissioner in supervising the work of the Bureau in the States. Operations in Virginia began in June 1865, when Assistant Commissioner Orlando Brown established his headquarters in Richmond. In a circular issued by Commissioner Howard in July 1865, the assistant commissioners were instructed to designate an officer in each State to serve as "General Superintendents of Schools." These officials were to "take cognizance of all that is being done to educate refugees and freedmen, secure proper protection to schools and teachers, promote method and efficiency, correspond with benevolent agencies which are supplying his field, and aid the Assistant Commissioner in making his required reports." In October 1865 some centralized control was established over Bureau educational activities in the States when Rev. John W. Alvord was appointed Inspector of Finances and Schools. In January 1867 Alvord was relieved of his financial responsibilities and was redesignated General Superintendent of Education.
Assistant Commissioner Brown appointed Prof. W. H. Woodbury as Virginia's Superintendent of Schools for Freedmen on June 20, 1865. Woodbury served for only a short period, until he was replaced by Ralza Morse Manly, the Assistant Superintendent of Schools. Manly, an Army chaplain, remained as Superintendent of Schools (later Education) until January 1869, when Assistant Commissioner Brown briefly assumed those duties through April. On May 1, 1869, Manly again became Superintendent and held the position until August 15, 1870, when all Bureau educational activities in the States ceased.
The Superintendent of Education served under the Assistant Commissioner as a staff officer. Subordinate to both the Assistant Commissioner and the Superintendent of Education were officials who commanded the local field offices into which Virginia was divided for administrative purposes. From July 4, 1865, to April 14, 1867, the State was divided into 10 districts, with an agent or superintendent in charge of each. Districts were further divided into subdistricts, each headed by an assistant superintendent. On April 15, 1867, the State was reorganized into 10 subdistricts, with a subassistant commissioner in charge of each. The subdistricts were divided into divisions headed by assistant subassistant commissioners. Subdistrict headquarters were established at Alexandria, Fort Monroe, Fredericksburg, Gordonsville, Lynchburg, Norfolk, Petersburg, Richmond, Winchester, and Wytheville. On January 1, 1869, the 10 subdistricts were reorganized into 8 educational subdistricts, with an assistant superintendent of schools in charge of each. The heads of the various subdivisions supervised all Bureau activities, including education, in their respective areas and reported on educational matters to both the Superintendent of Education and the Assistant Commissioner.
The schools maintained by the Bureau in Virginia included day schools for children, night schools for adults, and Sabbath schools. Rudimentary education, including reading, writing, arithmetic, and geography, received primary emphasis in the schools. Many teachers were recruited from the North by freedmen's aid societies, such as the American Missionary Association, the New York National Freedmen's Relief Association, the New England Freedmen's Aid Society, the American Baptist Home Mission Society, the Friends Freedmen's Relief Association, and the American Freedmen's Union Commission. Other teachers were eventually recruited from among the local white population and from among freedmen.
The Bureau's responsibility for education in Virginia included the establishment and maintenance of schools and the examination and appointment of teachers. Bureau funds were used to pay for construction and repair of school buildings, for rental of properties used for educational purposes, and for providing teachers with transportation. Freedmen's aid societies provided some of the pay for the teachers they recruited, and the salaries were partially subsidized by contributions from freedmen. Bureau policy dictated that, whenever possible, subscriptions be solicited from freedmen for the establishment of schools and that tuition be charged. A number of schools were established as the result of the initiative of local whites and freedmen, although subsequently they were given direction and support by the Bureau.
The volumes reproduced in this microfilm publication were originally arranged by type of record and thereunder by volume number. No numbers were assigned to series consisting of single volumes; later, all volumes were arbitrarily assigned numbers by the Adjutant General's Office (AGO) of the War Department after the records came into its custody. In this microfilm publication, AGO numbers are shown in parentheses to aid in identifying the volumes. Volume numbers without parentheses were assigned by the National Archives and Records Service (NARS) staff. Numbered blank pages have not been filmed.


Acquisition Note
Acquired from FamilySearch International in 2015.

Digital Content

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Using the Collection

Citation Note
Courtesy of the U. S. National Archives and Records Administration, FamilySearch International, and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Access Note
Freedmen's Bureau Digital Collection, 1865–1872, is a product of and owned by the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution. Copyright for digital images is retained by the donor, FamilySearch International; permission for commerical use of the digital images may be requested from FamilySearch International, Intellectual Property Office, at:

Related Archival Materials note


Keywords table of terms and types.
Keyword Terms Keyword Types
Slaves -- Emancipation Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Freedmen's Bureau Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
Reconstruction, U.S. history, 1865-1877 Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid
American South Topical Search Smithsonian Collections Search ArchiveGrid

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