FamilySearch Announces Project to Index 4 Million Records of Freed Slaves
Contributed By By R. Scott Lloyd, Church News staff writer
“One of our key beliefs is that our families can be linked forever and that knowing the sacrifices, the joys, and the paths our ancestors trod helps us to know who we are and what we can accomplish.”
—Elder D. Todd Christofferson
African American family history enthusiasts who have encountered a “brick wall” that blocks them in researching their pre-Civil War era ancestry have renewed hope, thanks to what is being called a “historic” initiative announced June 19.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles made the announcement on behalf of the Church and its FamilySearch International genealogy service during a news media event at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
FamilySearch is partnering with African American organizations in inviting the public to help index records of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency organized following passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution to assist newly freed slaves in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
Between 1862 and 1872, the bureau gathered handwritten documents on freed men, women, and children, including marriage and family information, military service, banking, school, hospital, and property records.
The announcement coincided with the 150th observance of Juneteenth, the national commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It was carried on mormonnewsroom.org and disoverfreedmen.org via Internet streaming, and concurrent events were held throughout the nation.
Elder Christofferson began his announcement by noting the massacre of nine people attending Bible study at an African American Episcopal Church in South Carolina on June 16.
“Our prayers are with the families of the victims and with the members of the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston,” he said. “We pray that all who mourn may find the peace that comes only from God.
“There, unfortunately, regrettably, we saw hate. Here, today, we’ll talk about love.”
Elder Christofferson said that 14 years previously he stood at a similar podium in Salt Lake City, Utah, participating in another announcement concerning African American genealogy, the completed index of the Freedmen’s Bank records.
The bank was created to help newly freed former slaves with their new financial opportunities and responsibilities.
“In an effort to establish the identities of bank patrons, the bank’s workers at the time recorded the names and family relationships of account holders, sometimes taking brief oral histories,” he said. “Although the bank tragically collapsed because of mismanagement and fraud, the records it had provided a treasure trove of valuable family history information.”
As Executive Director of the Family and Church History Department, he witnessed the “healing and joy that African Americans experienced as they discovered ancestors for the first time in those records,” he said. “Today, I’m humbled once again to be part of a historic announcement that can on paper potentially reunite the black family that was once torn apart by slavery.”
But this time, the records are 10 times greater, he exclaimed, comprising some 4 million names. “And this time the black community is uniting to help create a wonderful tool with which to discover its own family.”
Elder Christofferson explained that in 1865 newly freed men and women had a chance to unite their families, create communities, and participate in government, but they faced immense obstacles.
The federal government created the Freedmen’s Bureau to facilitate their transition to citizenship, he said. The bureau helped reunite families, opened schools, managed hospitals, supervised labor contracts, rationed food and clothing, and even formalized marriages, he explained.
“In the process the bureau gathered priceless, handwritten information on African Americans. In total, the bureau’s records comprise over 1,100 rolls of microfilm with untold stories of African Americans immediately following emancipation.”
While the stories can be difficult to read because of sadness and tragedy, one also sees in them triumph, hope, and resilience, he said. “What a great testimony to the sheer will and determination of this generation of people who had so little, yet rose to freedom and dignity.”
FamilySearch purchased copies of the Freedmen’s Bureau records from the National Archives and Records Administration in order to index and publish them digitally. In addition, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, slated to open next year on the mall in Washington, D.C., is partnering with FamilySearch to index the records and make the searchable database accessible online as well as in the family history center that will be part of that new museum, Elder Christofferson said.
Images of the records are now available at the website discoverfreedmen.org, but they have not been indexed according to key information such as names, dates, and places.
“It’s our hope that the Freedmen’s Bureau records will be a valuable resource for African Americans and help link together families so long and tragically separated,” Elder Christofferson said.
Thom Reed, a marketing manager for FamilySearch International, called the occasion “a historic day in the African American community.”
“Don’t let the events of two days ago put a shadow on what we have done here today,” said Brother Reed. “We have announced and will now move forward with bringing to light the names and information for more than 4 million individuals. That is something to be proud of!”
He said he has felt the call from his own ancestors to find their information, beginning his “journey of discovery” a few months ago.
“But like many who have African American roots, I’ve hit that brick wall,” he said, adding that he has traced one family line to the 1870 U.S. census. “But that’s it. And I know my family goes back further than that. I just can’t find the records and documentation yet. That’s what we seek to accomplish with the Freedmen’s Bureau project.”
He invited all to participate in the Freedmen’s Bureau Project by going to the project website discoverfreedmen.org. “You can click on a button to become a volunteer,” he said. “By doing so, you can determine what set of records you want to transcribe. You download our software, get a free account, and then begin indexing and transcribing these records. “
The project goal is to have all 1.5 million digital images indexed, with the information freely available online, in advance of the grand opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016.
FamilySearch has partnered with the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and its 30 chapters around the country, “where individuals can talk with someone specifically about African American family history and genealogical research,” he said.
The vice president of that society, Sherri Camp, said the project “will change the very fabric of genealogy for African Americans.” She said it will give Americans “a great opportunity to reach into the past and bring to light the history of a time that has been dark for 150 years.
Elder Christofferson’s announcement and other speeches at the news media event may be viewed at the project website or at the Church’s mormonnewsroom.org.