Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: FamilySearch & the Freedmen’s Bureau Project

Falls Church citizen Paul Allen, founder of Ancestry.com, recalled “As a boy, I watched ‘Roots’ on TV and was moved by that story. Alex Haley powerfully captured in his stories what he called the ‘hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage. We started Ancestry.com with the hope that every person in the world could more easily find their ancestors and discover their heritage.” Ancestry.com launched in 1997.

Now almost 20 years later, a new national family history effort will connect African Americans with their Civil War-era ancestors through the release of 1.5 million digitized images containing four million names from the Freedmen’s Bureau.

“For many of the freed slaves freedom was almost as perilous as bondage. They often had no job, money or shelter. They didn’t have proper training or education, and bigotry was almost ubiquitous. For some, the situation was so desperate that they were forced to continue working for their former masters — an indignity compounded by their lack of access to basic public services.” Sherri Camp, a genealogy librarian in Topeka, Kansas said in a recent editorial in the Topeka Capital Journal.

Seeing the problem, Congress created the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (often referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau). The Freedmen’s Bureau – which operated from 1865 to 1872 – assisted newly freed slaves in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The federal government – especially the military and Dept. of Treasury – made major efforts to provide property, schooling, jobs, and opportunities for millions of freed men, women and children, and to reconnect families where possible. This effort continued for several years after war.

The bureau’s services also included offering food, medical care, clothing, housing, legal counsel, employment assistance and many other forms of support to former slaves. In the process it gathered priceless handwritten, personal information including marriage and family information, military service, banking, school, hospital and property records of potentially millions of African Americans. Much of this information was preserved in the National Archives.

FamilySearch.org, a nonprofit organization, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with project partners The National Museum of African American History and Culture, the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States and the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, announced the Freedmen’s Bureau Project at a news conference held at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles on “Juneteenth” 2015 – the celebration of Emancipation Day. These collaborating organizations called for volunteers to index the digitized records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. “specifically those that have ties to these records, the African American community, to get involved with this to help us break down this brick wall to help us overcome these barriers in genealogical research and making these family connections,” said Thom Reed, product manager at FamilySearch. Reed has his own connection to the records. “I hit this brick wall in 1870 when the first census was taken that included African Americans as citizens. If you try to go back before then, the records are scanty at best.”

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project now has over 18,000 volunteers who are working to make these records available and accessible by taking the raw records, extracting the information and indexing them to make them easily searchable online. Once indexed, finding an ancestor may be as easy as going to FamilySearch.org, entering a name and, with the touch of a button, discovering your family member.

Anyone who would like to volunteer may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records contribute greatly to existing data for anyone with enslaved ancestors who were emancipated in 1863. Thanks to the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, they have been digitized, are being indexed, and will soon be freely available to all when the work is completed (projected to be sometime this summer).

These records, correspondence, and stories are priceless for discovering ancestors from that period for the first time. Volunteers have completed 84 percent of the work. If you would like to do just a little bit of “stepping back in history,” sign up at discoverfreedmen.org.

Local volunteers will be at The Tinner Hill Blues Festival Saturday, June 11, Cherry Hill Park, with information and video illustrating the history and the current indexing effort and help visitors learn how use FamilySearch to discover ancestors; their own unique history. Volunteers will also be available on Sunday, June 12 from 2 – 5 p.m. at the Old Fashioned Blues and Gospel Concert & Picnic at The Tinner Hill Historic Site at 108 Tinner Street, Falls Church.