Freedmen's School for Women - Sewing Class 1866

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Freedmen's School for Women

Reconstruction-era vocational school
Reconstruction-era vocational school to learn sewing. Adapted from image in Library of Congress

Sewing Class 1866

Adapted from an image from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, September 22, 1866, this image shows women among the newly freed slaves being taught to sew, a useful vocational skill that could help a woman support herself. This school was in Richmond, Virginia, in the city that had been the capital of the Confederacy.

Freedmen's schools were first established voluntarily in the former slave states, and then taken over by the Freedmen’s Bureau (a federal bureau, officially called the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands) in 1866. The Freedmen's Bureau, one of the first large-scale federal welfare projects and part of the Department of War, was not supported by President Andrew Johnson, and though Congress was able to override his veto of funding and reauthorization in 1866, it was only able to be sustained until 1871.

Though the popular name for the bureau emphasized its activities in providing education and training, housing, and other services to the former slaves, the bureau actually also was involved in many programs that benefited white veterans of the Union army and their dependents. The bureau saw that the dead could be buried in national cemeteries and provided for soldiers' pensions for old age for the Union veterans and their widows.

In establishing schools for the former slaves, the Freedmen's Bureau took over former Confederate properties like hospitals. Organizations in the north like the New York Friends' [Quaker] Freedmen's Association supported the schools with funding, and most of the teachers in Freedmen's Schools were white women who came with missionary associations and other groups to do this work.

Most of the schools enrolled male students; a few, like the one depicted in this image, taught women vocational skills that they could use to obtain paid employment as they transitioned from slavery to freedom. Freedmen's Bureau agents attempted to force freed women to work, including married women, so the training was important as part of that effort.

Among the other services provided to former slaves by the Freedmen's Bureau was the issuance of marriage licenses and help in resolving conflicts around marriage and divorce. Marriage had been either informal under slavery, with no legal protections or recognition by the owners, or were performed by the slaveowners. Few had been recorded with the legal system.