While on a recent trip to the National Archives I decided to look into some records from eastern Arkansas, to see what could be learned from the Freedman's Bureau documents.
Remember these facts:
The Freedman's Bureau was created after the Civil War and after slavery was abolished to provide assistance to newly freed slaves as they negotiated life for those first years after freedom.
The Bureau was officially known as the Office of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands.
The Bureau operated from 1865 to 1972, thus, it was a bureau created after the war had ended.
Imagine my surprise to come upon several pages of microfilm among the records of the Bureau, and to see the year 1864!
Wait----1864---the war was still going on and more than 6000 black men had fled to Union army lines and enlisted in the Union Army. On my Arkansas Freedmen website I devote a good portion of the history to the Civil War and I do have general information on the US Colored Troops organized in Arkansas during the Civil War. But imagine my surprise to find, in the midst of a record set pertaining to freed slaves after the war, a set of documents reflecting the fact that a possible colony of newly freed slaves also had formed during the war.
As I looked more closely, this refugee camp for ex slaves was organized, with several schools: According to the report, there were 6 schools for Freedmen in the city of Helena, and 1 at a site known as Camp Freedmen.
Now this information is valuable for two reasons: 1) It reflects some of the local history----six Freedman schools. How amazing to see so much interest in education almost immediately. 2) There was an official Freedman's colony. This is exciting as it indicates as early as 1864 that there was organization being put to work to educate the children and to assist with the adaptation of the former slaves to a new life.
I wondered where this camp---quite clearly a contraband camp was located. Well, sure enough there was more information about the camp.
There was additional data about this camp.
I had to pause and reflect on what I was seeing. War is a time of chaos and confusion. In spring of 1864, slavery still had a hold on people in the south and yet, some dared, once the Union Army was close, to make that dash for freedom. Here was a settlement of ex-slaves now breathing their first breath of free air, and there was immediate interest in education and providing structure to their lives that interrupted the pattern that they had known. So as they seized their freedom, there are some documents left that reflect the efforts to bring structure of a different kind into their lives.