The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by an act of Congress on March 3, 1865, two months before Confederate General Robert Lee (1807-70) surrendered to the Union’s Ulysses Grant (1822-85) effectively ending the Civil War. Intended as a temporary agency to last the duration of the war and one year afterward, the bureau was placed under the authority of the War Department and the majority of its original employees were Civil War soldiers.

Howard University, a historically all-black school in Washington, D.C., was established in 1867 and named for Oliver Howard, one of its founders and the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau. He served as the university’s president from 1869 to 1874.

During its years of operation, the Freedmen’s Bureau fed millions of people, built hospitals and provided medical aid, negotiated labor contracts for ex-slaves and settled labor disputes. It also helped former slaves legalize marriages and locate lost relatives, and assisted black veterans. The bureau also was instrumental in building thousands of schools for blacks, and helped to found such colleges as Howard University in Washington, D.C., Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia.