Millions of previously hard-to-access records on freed enslaved African Americans collected just after the start of the U.S. Civil War will soon be easily searchable online, likely allowing millions of people to trace their ancestry back farther than ever before.
FamilySearch, a large genealogy organization, announced Friday that in collaboration with several other organizations it will digitally release records collected through the Freedmen’s Bureau and launch a nationwide volunteer effort to make the records searchable by indexing them by 2016.
Genealogists and historians call the move a tremendous step in helping the nation learn more about its past and a unique opportunity for millions to reconnect with ancestors and find living family members.
The records also come as the nation continues to discuss racial identity and the case of Rachel Dolezal, a woman who is biologically white but identifies as black. Dolezal stepped down as president of the Spokane NAACP amid questions about her racial identity.
In hashtags, social media forums and in lively discussions, people continue to debate how to define race and what role lineage plays in ethnicity. The Freedmen’s Bureau records serve to further that conversation and illustrate how complex race remains, said Mark Anthony Neal, an African and African-American studies professor at Duke University.
“The big question of America is this question of racial identity,” he said. “Rachel (Dolezal) brings that to the forefront in ways that we hadn’t imagined before.”
Experts say such information will unearth a treasure trove of information that many African Americans have longed to learn about for hundreds of years.
“The records serve as a bridge to slavery and freedom,” said Hollis Gentry, of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will showcase the records when it opens next year. “You can look at some of the original documents that were created at the time when these people were living. They are the earliest of recordings of people who were formerly enslaved. We get a sense of their voice. We get a sense of their desires, their goals, their dreams, their hopes.”
Gentry and others involved in the project say the records will allow all Americans to learn how the United States transformed society after slavery ended. However, they stress they will need the public’s help to index the records, which they believe could take six to nine months.
Organized near the end of the Civil War and following the passage of the 13th Amendment, the Freedmen’s Bureau operated from 1865 to 1872 in 15 states and the District of Columbia. It opened schools, managed hospitals, rationed food and clothing and even solemnized marriages. As a result, it collected information on millions.
Sharon Leslie Morgan, founder of Our Black Ancestry Foundation, a non-profit that aims to provide resources for African-American genealogical research, said the indexing is very important and will give some people a sense of confidence as they learn about their family’s triumphs and struggles.
Prior to the 1870 U.S. Census, black people were classified as property without last names and as a result, finding information about black families before that year is extremely hard, she said. In addition, the records, which will now be online, were before only accessible by physically visiting places such as the National Archives and reading through hundreds of pages.
“There is a longing inside all of us human beings to know where you came from and who you belong to and who your people are,” Morgan said. “And, for black people in America that is particularly intense because we were taken away from our original homeland. Our identities were changed. Our families were severed. Our cultural traditions were frustrated.”
Following Friday’s announcement, volunteers will work with FamilySearch, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum to make the histories easy to find for free online searches, Thom Reed of FamilySearch said.
Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies race, adolescence and academic and social development, thinks the records will make some feel more confident.
“When you are able to look at your own family and see the triumphs that may have occurred in your family both as result of and despite slavery, I think it will be a very empowering experience,” she said.
Mark O’Connell, a psychotherapist who researches and writes about identity, adds that people of all races find power in family histories. “The more connected we are to something strong and heroic and dignified from our ancestors’ past, the more we can feel capable of being that way in our own lives,” he said.
Meanwhile, Morgan has spent a lifetime searching for her family roots, discovering the name of a black great grandmother born around 1800 and a white great grandfather born in 1670. She believes these records being disseminated throughout the country will serve a purpose for future generations.
“In order for us to deal with contemporary issues that we have today – racism, black boys being shot down in the streets – you have to confront the past,” she said. “The land was stolen from the Native Americans. The labor was provided for free by African slaves. The entire foundation of American capitalism is based on slavery, on a free labor market. People don’t want to deal with that and you have to.”