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FamilySearch International, the world’s largest genealogy organization, has given a newly indexed database of the historic Freedmen’s Bureau Records to the Smithsonian National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The database contains genealogical information of freed African Americans after the Civil War.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints presented the database on a flash drive to museum founding director Lonnie Bunch in front of an audience of congressional leaders, genealogical experts and volunteers who were key to the project’s success. The event took place at the museum Tuesday morning, December 6, 2016.
“I can think of no better way to honor the unprecedented commitment of these volunteers, as well as the bravery and resilience of those whose names have now been found on these records, than to have this database symbolically housed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” said Elder Christofferson.
The museum was dedicated September 24 during a three-day celebration.
“For the first time in history, African Americans can now bridge the gap between freedom and slavery and reunite their families — on paper — that were once torn apart by slavery,” he added.
“Collaborating on the Freedmen’s Bureau Project is a fundamental expression of our commitment to family history,” explained Bunch. “At the end of the Civil War, formerly enslaved individuals went to great lengths to reunite their families. The records of the Freedmen’s Bureau are essential to understanding their desires and reconstructing the histories of the families they formed.”
“Using modern, digital and web-based technology and the power of volunteers, this project is unlocking information from a transformative era in the history of African American families and the American nation,” said Hollis Gentry, a genealogical specialist at the museum. “Making that information available globally via the web will allow all of us to enlarge our understanding of the past.”
During the past year, more than 25,000 volunteers participated in the project in the United States and Canada. Volunteers uncovered the names of nearly 1.8 million of the 4 million people who were enslaved.
Key to the project’s success were the nationwide chapters of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society who partnered with local Mormon congregations, black churches and others in more than 100 indexing events.
Two volunteers indexed each document. Any differences in the entries were reviewed by a third experienced volunteer called an arbitrator, who made the final decision on the indexed data.
Using the index and document scans provided by FamilySearch, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has begun a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center, an online platform for volunteers to digitally transcribe and review transcriptions of Smithsonian collections. To supplement the indexing work done by FamilySearch volunteers, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will transcribe word-for-word every document in the collection. When completed, the papers will be searchable online. This joint effort will help increase access to the Freedmen’s Bureau collection and help the public learn more about the United States during Reconstruction.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, organized under an 1865 congressional order at the end of the Civil War, provided assistance to freed slaves in many 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 other documents. The records were compiled in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
Elder Christofferson said the documents were challenging to index because the records were not kept in a uniform way. “Some were registries, others were handwritten documents and still others were collections of letters. Anyone who has ever tried to decipher handwriting from that time period knows that it can be extremely difficult.”
African Americans can access the Freedmen’s Bureau Records online at no cost at discoverfreedmen.org.
“We will now focus our efforts on teaching people how to search the new digital records to discover and reunite with their families through this lost generation,” said Thom Reed, marketing manager for FamilySearch.
Elder Christofferson added, “One of our key beliefs is that our families can be linked forever in this life and in the life hereafter 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. It is a priceless gift.”
As the largest genealogical organization in the world, FamilySearch provides billions of ancestral records and is a nonprofit organization sponsored by the Church.