Author Interview--Dale Kretz (Administering Freedom) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our conversation with Dale Kretz to talk about his new book, Administering Freedom: The State of Emancipation after the Freedmen's Bureau, published by the University of North Carolina Press in October 2022.

Part 1

And it was for sure a tangled briar patch they had to navigate, your book also points to an interesting juxtaposition, African Americans are very savvy in understanding the system and what to say, but many of their claims are still rejected. Why did these three offices fail African American veterans and their surviving families?

DK: That’s true. And there are a host of explanations for why Black applicants found their claims for bounties and pensions disparately rejected, downgraded, or marked for special investigation. All three agencies—the Freedmen’s Bureau, Freedmen’s Branch, and Pension Bureau—failed to deliver justice to Black claimants. The Freedmen’s Bureau most dramatically failed to redistribute land confiscated from rebel planters to freedpeople, a founding directive of the temporary and perennially embattled agency. Incapacity remains a compelling explanation. The bureau lacked resources—staff and funding—that encouraged disinvestment from freedpeople’s affairs; but the bureau also suffered from a lack of vision, aware of its novelty as a federal endeavor but unable to sustain its commitment to the ongoing project of emancipation. 

Its successor, the Freedmen’s Branch, also lacked capacity. Its seemingly straightforward founding directive—to complete the payment of unpaid bounties to USCT veterans and heirs—proved exceedingly difficult, made all the more so by the agency’s own policies and protocols for discovering, verifying, and paying Black claimants. Even more than its predecessor, the Freedmen’s Branch pioneered antifraud measures to safeguard the Treasury from unscrupulous agents and claimants in the emancipated South.  

Officials of the Pension Bureau were also profoundly concerned with fraud, particularly in the South, and we see formerly enslaved claimants at the tip of the spear of the weaponized welfare state. The bureau’s multi-decade antifraud crusade served to legitimize its own beleaguered position in the American political landscape; in other words, highly publicized crackdowns on so-called Black pension hustlers—especially those promoting universal ex-slave pensions at the turn of the century—signaled to a critical public that the Pension Bureau was in fact capable of policing itself and those who leveled claims against it. 

Moreover, many have pointed to the stark disparities in success rates, with white Northern claimants far more likely to receive admission to the rolls. The racial disparities were certainly an injustice to Black claimants. But the larger injustice, as many freedpeople argued and as I detail in my book, is that the Pension Bureau, more than any other federal agency, diffused and displaced the promise of emancipation, blunting the energy of the leading edge of the Black freedom struggle in the Civil War era: USCT soldiers and their families. The Pension Bureau did so most dramatically in the 1890s when it crushed the earliest reparations movement—tellingly presented by its activists as an expansion of the pension rolls to include all ex-slaves regardless of military service. But the agency also stymied and burdened Black claimants on a more mundane, daily basis as well, especially in countless medical examinations.

What really caught my eye in your book were the required medical examinations to establish disability. You note that in some cases these examinations reopened the memories of slavery, would not that add to the trauma of slavery and be a good reason to not pursue a claim?

DK: Indeed. The medical examinations could certainly dredge up traumatic memories of slavery and war and, for that reason, may have discouraged many Black veterans from even applying. The federal surgeons conducting those medical examinations would have exacerbated that trauma with their relentless scrutiny and suspicion. Many Black claimants vigorously objected to this treatment. What’s more, in one of the darker ironies I discuss in my book, because the Pension Bureau deputized local, civilian physicians to serve as federal surgeons, many of these Southern medical examiners had been former slave doctors and even former enslavers—now in their present role as federal gatekeepers of the Pension Bureau, examining Black men for their laboring capacities. The old regime of slavery infiltrated the new order in a number of surprising, perverse ways.

Still, many Black veterans made the difficult decision to apply. And reapply, demanding higher disability ratings from their examining boards. As frustrating and traumatic as these medical examinations were for many Black claimants, they nevertheless afforded freedpeople opportunities to officially challenge medical diagnoses and assert some measure of bodily autonomy.

Since we are on dark ironies, it was mindboggling how you illustrate that the pension system forced African Americans to downplay slavery to get a pension but it also allowed the country as a whole to absolve responsibility for slavery—that just seemed so perverted.

DK: It’s a dramatic illustration of how the architects and custodians of the Pension Bureau had in mind a specific clientele: white Union veterans from Northern states. Its administrators couldn’t comprehend—and its standard protocols simply couldn’t accommodate—the bare lives of formerly enslaved claimants. Officials in the bureau’s Southern Division regularly complained about the special difficulties their division faced (lack of documentation chief among them); but even more fundamentally, the general law system forced Black claimants into the kind of perverse rhetorical position you mention, with bureau official incentivized to keep Black claimants off the rolls by tracing afflictions back to slavery. The state’s refusal to compensate for the damages of enslavement therefore animated the daily operations of the Pension Bureau and forecasted the crackdown on the massive grassroots reparations movement at the turn of the century.

Similarly, as you already mentioned masters often served as doctors, but they were also the most powerful voice to help freedpeople get a pension by certifying their good health during slavery, which of course then gave the ability to project a caring paternalistic image of slavery—how much did this obscene system help to foster the Lost Cause?

DK: The bounty and pension systems provided a golden opportunity for ex-enslavers to showcase their tortured self-image as beneficent patriarchs. We can imagine it would have been a regrettable yet pragmatic move on the part of formerly enslaved claimants to employ their former captors in their quests for payment. The irony was certainly not lost on them that these staple figures of the old regime served to midwife their claims with the federal government they so recently rebelled against. But for the old enslavers, it’s difficult to assess how much of this pomp remained within the Pension Bureau ecosystem and how much bled beyond to the wider realm of social relations.

That being said, as much of white America was swept into the Lost Cause cultural vortex, the Pension Bureau remained a bulwark against reconciliation. No so-called Confederate ever received a federal military pension by virtue of their “service” in the War of the Rebellion. Ex-rebels had tried for decades to gain inclusion on the federal rolls and always failed. But, contrary to charges of sectionalism, the Pension Bureau operated nationally and had plenty of claimants from the South—white Unionists and, above all, USCT soldiers and families. 

Your book has so many interesting modern implications, such as the continued issues with African Americans not getting the same medical care, issues with retirement and pensions, how do you see your book contribute to ongoing modern conversations in the United States?

DK: The book does indeed raise important implications for discussions of structural racism in the United States, particularly in areas of health and welfare. It demonstrates, for instance, how facially race-neutral policies and programs can nevertheless allow racism to thrive. But the study also should caution against technocratic, race-specific policies that come at the cost of true universality. Racism undermined the bounty and pension claims of Black Southerners and engendered stark disparities in policy outcomes, to be sure, but what encouraged and exacerbated racist disparities was the very selectivity, complexity, and inaccessibility of the bounty and pension programs, structural and organizational features which burdened the claims of ex-slave applicants and helped forge an enduring racist stigma surrounding welfare in America. 

It didn’t need to be this way. And, every step, Black claimants fought against what they perceived a strategic state incapacity and obfuscation designed to diffuse radical collective demands. So should we. 

Usually, at the end of interviews, I ask about future publishing plans; however, you have left academia and do not face the same publishing pressures—so in general, what do you plan for the future? Could you see yourself writing another book? 

DK: I can envision a second book project synthesizing the dialectics of my two careers. I’ve been considering writing an account of the unfinished history of collective organizing for single payer healthcare. And although I have indeed liberated myself from publishing pressures—and from the academic regime in general—I continue to be a student (and, now especially, practitioner) of history, devoted to the struggles of working people fighting for workplace democracy and economic justice.