Black Administrative Politics and the Question of the US State

The Freedman’s Bureau (James E. Taylor/Library of Congress)

In his book Administering Freedom, labor organizer and historian Dale Kretz asks how formerly enslaved Black people made freedom meaningful through their collective engagement with the US federal government. Through meticulous archival research of the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Freedmen’s Branch, and the US Pension Bureau, Kretz centers Black political action in the unstable emergence and consolidation of the US welfare state over the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He convincingly articulates a long tradition of “Black administrative politics” that did not end with the Freedmen’s Bureau. Black people’s claims with the US state — in the form of bounties, back payments, and pensions—increasingly became a claim to the US state, Kretz argues, to expose the tensions between civil citizenship based on individual property and social citizenship rooted in collective welfare.

Detailing invasive means-testing, systematic delays, and meagre benefits, Kretz highlights both the possibilities and limitations of the burgeoning welfare state. He cautions against a romanticized depiction of Black “voices” within state-sanctioned testimonies, astutely interpreting Black people’s “strategic postures” on slavery, loyalty, and dependency in the attempt to secure state benefits. Their minute negotiations to perform “worthiness” to the US state simultaneously revealed, if not questioned, how and why wounds became worthy of citizenship. Black people’s limited success in making claims for bounty, back payment, and pensions came from their collective mobilization and persistence. Their communal endeavors challenged and shaped federal administration at a time of rapid expansion in state capacity.

Beginning with the Freedmen’s Bureau, Kretz extends from the work of Chandra Manning to posit a mutually beneficial alliance between Black people and the US state. Black people exchanged labor and loyalty for protection, Kretz argues, a mode of reciprocity that became the essential foundation of African American citizenship rights. Kretz convincingly details how Black people wrote joint letters and petitions, circulated news and rumors on state action, and secured claims for themselves, their families, and their comrades, collective actions which confounded the individualized claims-making process. The Freedmen’s Bureau’s incapacity and unwillingness to respond to the demands of Black administrative politics prevented a more transformative form of economic justice.

Black collective action helped maintain the claims-making process of the Freedmen’s Bureau into the Freedmen’s Branch beginning in 1872. The subject of the second chapter, Kretz draws on underutilized sources to explain how Black comrades, family members, and neighbors worked together to expedite their bounty and pension claims. They strategically marshalled the support of government agents, missionaries, and elite Southerners to legitimize their claims under the credibility of property and whiteness. Black people’s efforts towards state legibility, for all its potential material benefits, invited “intense scrutiny, loss of privacy, and threats to dignity.” (84) Predictably, state attention towards “fraud” discouraged participation when Black collective organizing made outright abolition of the program politically unfeasible. The Freedmen’s Branch proved to be a failure by design, whose final demise came in 1879.

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.

Within the slavery-to-freedom teleology of the US state, formerly enslaved Black veterans had to originate their disabilities to the war and not from slavery. Following the model of racial progress pervasive in the 1880s, the disability pension’s origin requirement represented slavery as the source of Black people’s racial “degradation” and “debasement.” By “drawing a bright red line between slavery and freedom,” Kretz astutely contends, the pension system established “an antislavery foundation for the new nation-state by absolving it of compensating for past wrongs.” (7). Black men had to “overcome” their slave past to prove their manhood in war, unwittingly representing slavery in their pension files as the beneficent institution of the Lost Cause. Their testimonies, however, remained secondary to their medical examinations.

Chapter five examines the objectification of Black people’s bodies under the emerging scientific “objectivity” of the US Pension Bureau. Kretz argues that the liberalization of the 1890 Disability Act, which eliminated the service origin requirement for disability pensions, also increased the racist scrutiny of medical officials and special examiners against Black claimants. Bringing the logic of the slave market to the medical clinic, physicians minutely examined Black men’s bodies to define “disability” under presumed accordance with their physical capacity to labor for subsistence. Their state-sanctioned authority medicalized disability, with the question of “labor” reinforcing a racial and sexual value of Black claimants. Physicians and medical boards produced discrepancies in ratings between claimants, an instability in the emerging category of “disability” that Black claimants sought to exploit. They collectively wrote letters, testified for one another’s claims, and travelled to other medical examiners to challenge the rulings and ratings of the medical boards. Waves of rejections, purges, and reductions of Black people from the pension rolls over issues of sobriety, respectability, and fraud, however, suggested “substantive injustice was built into the very structure of the pension system.” (232) The Pension Bureau seemed more concerned about individual “fraud” against the government than the systemic injustice they posed towards Black claimants.

The role of former enslavers and plantation doctors as intermediaries within Black people’s claims became a persistent theme within Administering Freedom. Kretz contends that the “enslavers-turned-employers stylized themselves as the beneficent guardians of a people to whom they could no longer lay legal claim.” (92) They equated the failure of the government to provide federal benefits with the “failure” of state emancipation, a “tragic mistake” that disrupted “the plantation harmony” of the Lost Cause. White merchants similarly supported Black people’s claims for federal benefit, Kretz asserts, often under the hopes that Black people’s bounties and pensions would stimulate the depressed Southern economy. Perhaps the former enslavers also participated in Black people’s claims-making to further integrate Black people into the consumer market. As a (dubious) measure of subsistence, a successful claim could justify an employer to decrease Black people’s time on food crops and share in the cotton or sugar crop. Whatever their motives, the emerging alliance between the state and former enslavers arguably consolidated under their mutual desire to expunge the violence of slavery from the nation-state.

Tens of thousands of working-class Black Southerners directly challenged the state’s disavowal of slavery in the ex-slave pension movement. The subject of chapter six, the ex-slave pension movement advocated “pensions for all” in the form of an expanded welfare state, social democracy, biracial populism, and reparations for their enslaved labor. The movement at the grassroots, Kretz argues, envisioned the government as responsible for the general welfare of all citizens in a larger struggle for wealth and power redistribution. The US state quickly mobilized against the movement, preventing the use of federal mail and imbedding undercover investigators under a paternalist “protection” of Black people from corruption and anarchism.

As a working-class movement for economic and racial justice, the ex-slave pension movement emerged alongside the ex-Confederate pension movement of the Lost Cause. Each movement failed to materialize systematic change in US pensions, with the Social Security Act of 1935 excluding agricultural and domestic workers. Based on my reading of Kretz’s last chapter, however, the white leadership of both movements, one advocating for racial justice based on wealth redistribution, the other advocating for a “redemption” of white supremacy, ironically represented their agendas as necessary for national reunification. Is it possible, under such a narrative of liberal progress and national inclusion, to disentangle state emancipation from state legitimacy?

Through extensive and arduous archival research on federal agencies, Dale Kretz’s impressive work opens new avenues for future scholars to explore Black administrative politics alongside the longstanding historical scholarship on Black electoral participation and community organizing. How might we read Black people’s strategic postures within their pension files, bounty claims, and medical examinations as testaments to alternative modes of belonging, against and beyond the United States? Dale Kretz’s thought-provoking work helps us begin to consider Black people’s remaking of freedom and citizenship as the question of the US state.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.


Frances O'Shaughnessy

Frances O’Shaughnessy is a doctoral candidate in African American history at the University of Washington. Their dissertation, "Black Revolution on the Sea Islands," historicizes Gullah Geechee practices of freedom, kinship, and care during the US Civil War and Reconstruction.