“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, the largest genealogy organization in the world, which is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearch has announced completion of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, indexing the names of millions of African Americans collected directly following emancipation.
The unprecedented indexing effort will allow African Americans to digitally search for their ancestors who were previously lost to history. The project was completed almost a year to the day after it was announced in a nationwide news conference at the California African American Museum on the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the celebration of Emancipation Day.
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.
Key to the project’s success were the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society’s (AAHGS) nationwide chapters, the Smithsonian and local Mormon congregations who partnered in over 100 indexing events to bring the project to a successful conclusion.
FamilySearch also partnered with HISTORY® in May to give the project a final push through a social media campaign to coincide with the premiere of the television series “Roots.”
“In addition to our valuable partners, the project was embraced by dedicated genealogists, religious groups, universities and even was the focus of Eagle Scout projects,” added Reed. “We all sensed an urgency to bring this important chapter in history to life and shine a light on this courageous generation of African Americans.”
William Durant from the AAHGS Metro Atlanta Chapter said, "Indexing Freedmen's Bureau records puts you 'up close and personal' with ancestors and their struggles to begin life anew after slavery. It helps prepare you for your own research and saves time because you become familiar with the records, their format and wording, and [you] already know where to look for names."
The project’s completion coincides with the September 2016 opening of the 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.
“The genealogical community is fully embracing these records,” said Hollis Gentry, genealogy specialist at NMAAHC. “You’ll find African American genealogists are quite excited about the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. It offers a tremendous potential for them to find their ancestors in this large group of federal records that may bridge the gap between freedom and slavery in the records.”
“The Freedmen's Bureau Project will change the very fabric of genealogy for African Americans," said Sherri Camp, president of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.
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.
Although the project is completed, it will be 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,” explained Michael Judson of FamilySearch. “The arbitrator chooses the correct indexed data or adds their own information when neither appears to be correct.”
Project organizers report that even more records have been discovered as a result of the original indexing project. The additional records will be available for indexing on DiscoverFreedmen.org. Once completed, they too will be added to the collection at the Smithsonian and will be available online.
“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,” said Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who spoke a year ago at a news conference in Los Angeles to launch the Freedmen’s Bureau Project.