The Freedmen’s Bureau Project will bring a change to family history research for African Americans, according to Dr. Edna Briggs, president of the California African American Genealogical Society.
FamilySearch, the largest genealogy organization in the world, which is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has announced completion of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, which indexed the names of millions of African Americans collected directly following emancipation.
“Indexing is a transcription effort that makes valuable genealogical records searchable online,” Dr. Briggs said. “By completing this project, African Americans can now digitally search for their ancestors who were previously lost to history, bringing out of obscurity a courageous generation of African Americans.”
Over the past year, about 19,000 volunteers participated in the project across the U.S. and Canada to extract nearly 1.8 million names of former slaves and immigrants from Civil War-era records.
“Because of this huge voluntary effort that involved more than 100 indexing events, we can search the new digital records to find our connection to these ancestors and better understand their struggles to begin their new lives after slavery,” said Alma Baily, who oversees the Discover Your Roots Conference held each year in Los Angeles.
Among the local community organizations that supported the project were student, faculty, and staff volunteers from the Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology, along with volunteers from outside of the school who heard of the project and wanted to participate.
“Our volunteers were committed to this effort and felt it was one of the most meaningful things we could have done. It drew us together beyond a superficial level around an issue that has been plaguing our nation since its founding,” said Pepperdine Graduate School Dean Helen Easterling Williams.
“As we read and indexed court records and other documents, it helped us understand the circumstances of these former slaves. Knowing what their lives were like, gave us significant insights into present-day social, emotional, relational, and economic challenges. In general, we felt a deep sense of gratitude for our own lives.”
The project’s completion coincides with the September 2016 grand opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C. A symbolic handover of the records will take place later this year. At that time, all of the records will also be available to the public to search online at no cost.
“Now that the names are indexed, we will focus our efforts on teaching African Americans how to search the new digital records to discover and reunite with their families,” said Thom Reed, marketing manager of FamilySearch.
Although the project is completed, he said it would be a few more months before all of the records will be available to the public because they still need to go through an arbitration process.
“To ensure the accuracy of the indexed information, two volunteers index each document. Any differences between the entries of these two volunteers is reviewed by a third, experienced volunteer called an arbitrator,” said Michael Judson of FamilySearch. “The arbitrator chooses the correct indexed data or supplies additional information when neither appears to be correct.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau, organized under an 1865 Congressional order at the conclusion of the Civil War, offered assistance to freed slaves. 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.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, spoke a year ago at a news conference in Los Angeles to launch the Freedmen’s Bureau Project.
“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.