A national effort launched Friday will connect African Americans with their Civil War-era ancestors through the release of 1.5 million digitized images containing 4 million names from the Freedman’s Bureau. FamilySearch, a nonprofit organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced The Freedmen’s Bureau Project at a news conference held in the California African American Museum in Los Angeles on “Juneteenth,” the celebration of Emancipation Day 150 years ago today.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of the importance of the project at the news event and explained the records were carefully preserved and protected for decades by the National Archives and Records Administration. “We honor its commitment to the past,” he said.
Elder Christofferson was executive director of the Church’s Family and Church History Department 14 years ago when the Church announced the completed searchable index of the Freedmen’s Bank Records.
“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,” he said. “I witnessed the healing and joy African Americans experienced as they discovered their ancestors for the first time in those records.”
Jermaine Sullivan, Church leader who oversees nine Mormon congregations in Atlanta, Georgia, and his wife, Kembe, both featured in the movie “Meet the Mormons,” conducted the media event. President Jermaine Sullivan called it a “memorable day for African American family history research.” Kembe Sullivan added, “I can’t help [but] think of my own three children. … I want them to know the sacrifices and have an appreciation for those who overcame an unconscionable past to give them the future they have today.”
FamilySearch, the genealogical arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, announced a collaborative project with the National Museum of African American History and Culture(NMAAHC), the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States and the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society to index the digitized records of the Freedman’s Bureau.
“We’re calling for volunteers, 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 in Salt Lake City. 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.”
Sherri Camp, vice president of genealogy of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, said her group’s 30 chapters across the country are excited to participate in the indexing project. “We’re partnering with FamilySearch to get volunteers in all of our chapters across the country to have indexing groups so that we can get these records done.”
After reciting some of her family’s history from Europe to the United States, Ambassador Diane Watson said, “We need to know who we are; if we know where we come from, we have a clear way of going into the future.”
Jannah Scott, deputy director for the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, elaborated: “This is rich. This is about all of us. I know the records are about the 4 million African Americans that were freed, but at that time there were people from all races, all religions, all ethnicities who were heralding the call for a new America, an America that would hold the promise of us being a perfect union, an America that would hold the promise that all men are created equal.”
The Freedman’s Bureau, organized under an 1865 Congressional order at the conclusion of the Civil War, offered assistance to freed slaves in a multitude of ways. Handwritten records of these transactions include records such as marriage registers, hospital or patient registers, educational efforts, census lists, labor contracts and indenture or apprenticeship papers and others. The records were compiled in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
“This indexing project is going to enable genealogists and historians to access a treasure trove of information,” said Hollis Gentry, genealogy specialist at the Smithsonian (NMAAHC), who explains her unique involvement with the Freedmen’s Bureau records. “I descended from individuals documented in the records. The records can detail the transition from slavery to freedom. They can also detail the transitions of the war-torn communities of the southern states. People who research and index these records will gain insights as to what was happening. The records gathered information as it actually occurred, helping to clarify previous questions for the first time.”
“The records serve as a bridge to slavery and freedom,” emphasized Gentry. “It’s a critical period and not just for African Americans, but for America because it helps us to understand how they transformed the society.” Hollis hopes to have the records fully indexed by the opening of the museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 2016.
Rev. Cecil L. Murray, former pastor of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, agreed.
“I grew up only knowing one generation of my family, and I always wondered about those before me,” Murray said. “A door is opened when you get a chance to know about your history.”
As Rev. Murray summarized, “The Freedman’s Bureau story needs to be told. … When you know your background then your foreground pretty well takes care of itself. When you know where you are coming from then you can design where you are going.”
For more information on the Freedmen’s Bureau project, visit discoverfreedmen.org.