When Lynn Stowell, a volunteer guide at Saturday’s opening of the new Northwest African American Museum, helped a man find information about his grandfather, the man wept. Such was the very personal response among some of the guests.
Stowell and other volunteers showed visitors, many of them African Americans, how to research their family trees using the equipment and software available in the museum’s Genealogy Research Center.
“Finally getting access to information about our ancestors is an emotionally-charged thing,” said Andrew Cleveland. “Due to our history, information about our forebears has been difficult if not impossible to find."
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated computers, a digital imaging system and other equipment and software to the center. Local Latter-day Saint family history experts provided training to center personnel.
Some estimates put attendance at the museum opening on Saturday at over 1,000 with over half of those spending time in the genealogy center. Stowell said the seats were occupied and the computers were in use all day.
According to Cynthia Wilson, manager of the Genealogy Research Center, guests were impressed with what they saw. “Most promised us as they were leaving that they would be back,” she said.
This is one of several projects supported by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its genealogy entity FamilySearch. In 2002, the Church assisted in the creation of a similar family history center in Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
In 2001, FamilySearch released the Freedman’s Bank records on CD, a unique searchable database documenting several generations of African Americans immediately following the Civil War. Congress chartered the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company in 1865 to benefit former slaves, but it collapsed because of mismanagement and outright fraud. However, the records left behind contain a treasure trove of names, family relationship information and even oral histories for African American family history researchers.
Since that time, a number of other significant resources have been developed. The Church’s online genealogy portal, familysearch.org, contains an African American section. FamilySearch has also published a research guide for African American family history researchers. Over six million searchable records of African Americans as listed in the 1880 U.S. Census have been made available.
In 2006, FamilySearch participated in the Afro American Historical and Genealogical Society’s national conference in Salt Lake City. FamilySearch had previously partnered in the forming of the Utah chapter of the AAHGS.
Family history conventions have been co-sponsored by the Church in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Oakland, Las Vegas, New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Miami, Seattle and New Jersey. An African American family history conference is held in Salt Lake City each year.
“This center will mean a great deal to the people in this area,” says Wilson. “It is located in a predominantly African American neighborhood so patrons can get here easily.”
Entrance to the genealogy center is free. In addition to accessing online and CD-based information, patrons can order materials from the Church’s Family History Library in Salt Lake City.
Latter-day Saints place great emphasis on families and family history research.