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Members of the California Legislative Black Caucus gathered at the Capitol in Sacramento Monday, June 26, 2017, to celebrate Juneteenth with a family history event. Family history volunteers were on hand to assist lawmakers in accessing digitized Post Civil War-era records of the Freedmen’s Bureau and other family history resources provided by FamilySearch International, a nonprofit organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Forty African American judges from across California also participated in the event.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Project was launched two years ago at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles on the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, which marked the end of slavery in the United States. The digitization project was completed in June 2016.
“With the help of numerous volunteers from California and others around the world, we were able to discover the names of 1,781,463 individuals, many who were formerly enslaved African Americans, and make their information freely available to the public for the first time,” said Thom Reed, senior global outreach manager for FamilySearch International.
Seven California legislators submitted family information to the researcher prior to the event to see if they could find any of their ancestors in the records. Family history consultants were also available to help African American staff members do their genealogy.
“This is a wonderful gift that’s been given to us,” said assembly member Shirley Weber, who found information on four generations with the help of family history researchers. “It’s been exciting to really begin to uncover some things that we kind of knew about but didn’t have all the specific information,” said Weber.
Judy Matthews from the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Congress of Black Women found information on her grandmother in the Freedmen’s Bureau Records. “Thanks to the many volunteers helping index these historical records, we now have an opportunity to discover our history and our connection,” said Matthews.
“It’s just great to learn; it was mind-expanding,” said Kelvin D. Filer, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge, who found several members of his family in the Freedmen’s Bureau Records. “I really would like the opportunity to do a little bit more in-depth research on where my family came from, and now I’ll be able to do that because of the information you’ve provided.”
In December, the database was also given to the Smithsonian National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The California African American Museum will also soon have a family history center where visitors can access the Freedmen’s Bureau Records.
“The documents that were kept for these individuals were some of the first documenting those of African descent as citizens of this nation,” explained Reed. “The National Archives and Records Administration held on to these handwritten records for nearly 100 years before they were microfilmed and eventually digitized.”
At the end of the family history event, George Davis, director of the California African American Museum, had a welcome announcement — the Church will partner with the museum to open a family history center to help people connect to their past.
African Americans can now access the Freedmen’s Bureau Records online at no cost at discoverfreedmen.org to see if they can find any connections to Civil War-era ancestors.