Symposium Preview: Emmanuel Dabney and the Legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau

Emmanuel Dabney is gearing up to take on the 2015 Emerging Civil War Symposium, and he has one thing on his mind: legacies. Not just the legacy of the Civil War, though—personal legacies, as well.

Shedding light on an often-underappreciated organization, Dabney will address the role the Freedmen’s Bureau played in the Civil War era.  Likewise, he will discuss the overall impact these freedmen had in advancing post-Civil War America.

“I’m going to primarily focus on the Freedmen’s Bureau’s work in Virginia from 1865-72 and the overall big picture messages in what the Freedmen’s Bureau was,” Dabney said.  “I will also speak about the challenges these government officials faced in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.”

Some of the challenges the Bureau faced included the education of recently freed people, working to legally legitimize individuals’ marriages, providing welfare assistance to freed people, and settling labor contract disputes between black laborers and white landowners. The Freedmen’s Bureau tried to act as a guiding light through the turmoil, trying to balance both the expectations of the freedmen and the federal government.

“The Bureau was despised by Andrew Johnson,” Dabney explained. “He attempted in 1866 to get rid of the Bureau, which is one of many places where he and the Radical Republicans sparred. White Southerners, in a large majority, certainly did not help the Bureau agents—though I have found a few cases where they did assist blacks and the Bureau agents knew about this.”

But the bottom line, Dabney said, is that “Black Southerners’ expectations for assistance often could not be met by the Bureau’s officials.”

Dabney said he hopes to break down the complicated legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau for attendees.  Although he admits that the legacies picture has not always been rosy, and racial violence still thrives, the Bureau made major, lasting impacts.

“The strongest successes [of Reconstruction] are probably NOT from the Bureau,” he admitted, “but the changes to our Constitution with the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.”

As an African American, Dabney feels a close connection to the topics he will be discussing.  His passion for both equality and history will not only drive his lecture, but have also been motivators throughout his professional career.

Although Dabney has grown to be well-known within the Civil War community, he had humble beginnings growing up in Virginia.  Dabney said that, while he debates when he fell in love with history, he does know that his love for it continues to grow.

“I grew up with Petersburg National Battlefield, so the running joke was that when I was sixteen, I would be working there,” Dabney said.  “And so, when I turned sixteen, I got a seasonal job here—and that turned into a permanent job, eventually.”

Dabney has been with Petersburg National Battlefield for the past fourteen years, first serving as a volunteer, and now as an employed park ranger.  Also during his time at the park, he has reenacted, lectured, and presented programs about the experiences of African Americans during the Civil War era.

Along with his ongoing duties as a park ranger, Dabney has also been scheduled to speak at a symposium in Prince William County this May.

“I’ve been to different places and states to speak about different subjects on black peoples’ experiences during the Civil War and post-war years,” Dabney said.

While Dabney said he has been passionate about history for the majority of his life, he hopes that others will find this same interest.  Further, he said that even if an individual does not take an interest in broad history, we must be careful how we develop our own personal histories.

“The whole experience of being a person in the world, wherever you are, has been shaped by these events that have already happened,” Dabney said.  “In many ways we are creating history ourselves—our own personal histories, as well as broader history that will one day, of course, be judged by other people.”

Click here for more information on this years symposium.

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