Fighting “A Practical Denial of Justice”: Legal Services in American History

We are grateful for the opportunity during Black History Month to honor the contributions of Black Americans and to do work, however inadequate, to elevate the voices in our country that have been ignored and suppressed.

The history of legal services in America is tied to the struggle for racial justice. An early antecedent of modern legal aid was the Freedmen’s Bureau, which the federal government established in 1865 to transition the South out of a slavery-based economy. Among other practical supports for freed Black people in the South, like hospitals and schools, the Bureau provided legal aid in the local courts.

That work was designed to protect against the abuses of a system that had been built on violence and oppression. Freed Black Americans were often paid less than whites for the same work, or cheated of their wages altogether. Violence against Black people went unpunished more often than violence against whites.

And yet Black people rarely sought legal recourse, as racist authorities made an impartial verdict impossible. When cases did go to court, the glacial pace of the system was another disproportionate burden on the poor. “For people who depended upon settlements to survive,” sending them to the courts “is to force them to starve or steal,” wrote a Bureau official to the Commissioner at that time, calling it “a practical denial of justice.”

In Georgia, Bureau agents advocated for Black clients in court, and collected evidence, interviewed witnesses, and established themselves as reliable liaisons to the legal process, noted Sara Rapport in the Georgia Quarterly Review. The challenges were steep. But when the Bureau's agents succeeded, they improved living conditions for freed Black Americans, and greatly improved access to the legal system.

With improved access, noted Rapport, the law became a potent tool of civil equity. People began to advocate for themselves, asking for trials and requesting appeals when they knew the verdicts were unfair. Aaron Bradley, an escaped slave who attended law school in Massachusetts and then returned to Georgia just after the war, amassed thousands of followers as a shrewd lawyer and firebrand leader who advised freed people of their rights.

The Freedmen’s Bureau didn’t last long. The reforms in the South fell apart, and a grim era of virulent racism began and lasted decades. The effects of that era persist today. We see the evidence daily in our work here at Northeast New Jersey Legal Services, in the battles our clients face to obtain basic services and receive justice. When the system works poorly, too slowly, or fails people altogether, the result is still the practical denial of justice.

But the legacy of advocates like Aaron Bradley also lives on today, in the work of organizations like ours. We believe, as Bradley did, in helping people know their rights, and that equal access to legal services creates change not just for individuals, but in communities and societies. The Freedmen’s Bureau helped ensure that our country made good on its promises to its citizens. As we honor pioneers like Bradley this month and every month, we work to do the same.

Image: From the website of the National Archive, an 1866 Congressional document extending the term of the Freedmen's Bureau for another two years.

For further reading:

The Freedmen's Bureau as a Legal Agent for Black Men and Women in Georgia: 1865-1868, Sara Rapport, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 1, Spring 1989,

The Freedmen’s Bureau, W.E.B. DuBois, The Atlantic, March 1901,

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