The Freedmen’s Bureau Project

By Camille Kerr

Writing Specialist on the Woodbridge, Virginia Stake Public Affairs Council for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

freed-family-on-plantation_thumb-e4fc1a2387fdcb3e7652c2d0a22dc8e0In October, local representatives from the Woodbridge Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints directly engaged with the Prince William County Board of Supervisors in Woodbridge, Virginia on the historic Freedmen’s Bureau Project  initiative which is helping African Americans reconnect with Civil War era ancestors.

Woodbridge Stake President Clark Price and Second Counselor David Oryang initially met directly with Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart on Thursday, October 8. This meeting led to an invitation for the Woodbridge Stake to formally present information about the Freedmen’s Bureau Project to a public gathering of the full committee of the Board of Supervisors.  President Oryang presented at the meeting on October 13.

President Oryang presented the history of the Freedmen’s Bureau and shared the vision of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project which was announced on June 19, 2015, by FamilySearch, the genealogical arm of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.   The information from his presentation and for this article came from flyers and documents from the website www.discoverfreedmen.org.

Emancipation brought about the freedom of nearly 4 million slamarriage-cert_thumb-0968a0278503a7687e29fd3ac9a70ee0ves. To help transition these people from slavery to citizenship the Federal Government established the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau provided food, housing, education, medical care and even solemnized marriages.  In the process it gathered priceless handwritten, personal information on potentially 4 million African Americans, and other immigrants and residents in need of assistance.

For the first time in U.S. history, the names of those individuals will be systematically recorded and preserved for future generations.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is to be a collaborative project with the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the National Archives and Records Administration of the United States, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum. Volunteers nationwide will index the digitized records of the Freedmen’s Bureau so that families living today can search those records, find out about, and be reunited with their ancestors.

The project will connect African Americans with their Civil War-era ancestors through the release of 1.5 million digitized images containing 4 million names from the Freedmen’s Bureau. The records can link African Americans to their ancestors in a way previously impossible.

in-front-of-a-freedmen-school_thumb-0e2c8ae24dcba9da38891641a3097147In addition genealogists, historians and other researchers will be able to examine the American experience in the post-Civil War and Reconstruction eras on subjects such as: economics, education, emancipation, family, government and military policies, health, labor, law, local history, marriage, and race relations.

Before the launch of the project, FamilySearch was able to begin some preliminary work in 2001 by indexing the Freedmen’s Bank records, comprising more than 460,000 historical records. This became one of the largest collections of searchable Civil War-era African American records. In 2009, FamilySearch volunteers continued these efforts by indexing over 800,000 Freedmen’s Bureau records from Virginia.

With the launch of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project is a call for volunteers to index. Indexing is the process of entering information from historical records into an online, searchable database. Volunteers will be indexing the names and data of freedmen and refugees from approximately 1.5 million handwritten records in the Freedmen’s Bureau collection to make it easier to find individuals within those records.

Tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply log on, pull up as many scanned documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided.

Once the records are indexed and searchable online, many African Americans will be able to discover their Civil War-era families for the first time, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors. Records, histories and stories will be available on discoverfreedmen.org.

Volunteers have already completed the name indexes for the Virginia microfilm (NARA publication M1913). They are currently available for searching and browsing at www.familysearch.org under the database title “Virginia, Freedmen’s Bureau Field Office Records, 1865-1872.”

Nationwide volunteer indexing efforts are expected to take one year to complete. The goal is to complete the indexing project by June 19, 2016 when the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is intended to open. Additionally, the records will be showcased in the Museum which is currently under construction on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

“This indexing project is going to enable genealogists and historians to access a treasure trove of information,” said Hollis Gentry, genealogy specialist at the Smithsonian (NMAAHC), who explains her unique involvement with the Freedmen’s Bureau records. “I descended from individuals documented in the records. The records can detail the transition from slavery to freedom. They can also detail the transitions of the war-torn communities of the southern states. People who research and index these records will gain insights as to what was happening. The records gathered information as it actually occurred, helping to clarify previous questions for the first time.”

As President Oryang presented the project to the Prince William Board of County Supervisors he was also able to share the importance of family history to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in linking the living with their ancestors, and enabling the work of God to go forward. He shared Malachi 4:5-6 which says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”

He also spoke of the difficulty that he has in doing his own family history, since records in Africa are not written down, but passed orally from generation to generation. He expressed that it is a blessing that out of the horrific act of slavery, the descendants of freed slaves have a way to be linked to their ancestors through the Freedmen’s Bureau records.

He shared with the board that one of our church buildings has a Family History Center available and mentioned that Chairman Stewart has visited this Family History Center. The Center is located on 3000 Dale Boulevard.  Nancy Bonaccorso, the Indexing Director for the Woodbridge Stake, who does work at the Family History Center, also attended the board meeting and was introduced to the board.

President Oryang shared his feelings about the chance to meet and present this project. “This has been a remarkably spiritual experience for us, that has brought communication and understanding, and has opened up possibilities of collaboration with leaders in our community.”

For more information on the Freedmen’s Bureau project or to get started as a volunteer, visit discoverfreedmen.org.

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