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Administering Freedom (Black Women and the Freedman’s Bureau

Students in both PolS 356 and 358 may find chapter 3 particularly instructive.

In chapter 3 of this work, Dale Kretz, within a broader examination of The Freedman’s Bureau, details how “Black mothers and widows defied bureaucratic expectations in the pursuit of survivors’ pensions.”


Chapter three details how Black mothers and widows defied bureaucratic expectations in the pursuit of survivors’ pensions. Black women strategically evoked the language of fidelity, loyalty, and service to narrate their “dependency” on their deceased sons and husbands and not their former enslavers. In one claim, Nancy Dixon emphasized how she “took care” of her enslaver through the produce and proceeds of her and her son’s garden plot. When her son enlisted, he sent Dixon his wages and left her all the produce from his garden and cornfield. The community’s collective testimonies to Dixon’s independence from her enslaver convinced the special examiner but proved to the commissioner and the house committee that she was not dependent on her son. By carefully analyzing Dixon’s claim alongside the claims of Black mothers and widows, Kretz revealed the growing state apparatus of surveillance — the special examiners, commissioners, and committees — that came with documented citizenship. Black women’s strategic postures between dependency and autonomy not only challenged the paternalist logic of slavery to reveal collective systems of survival but also confounded state attempts to renounce slavery in a narrative of liberal progress. — Frances O’Shaughnessy


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