Thursday, February 23, 2017

Black Family History Research

In celebration of Black History Month, I’d like to share some family history news, related to efforts to help freedmen—freed slaves, back in the years following the Civil War.

This first story isn't exactly new news; it goes back to around 2000.

The Freedman’s Bank was a savings and trust company chartered by the US Congress in 1865 to benefit former slaves. It turned out to be a disaster. After more than $57 million were deposited in the bank, it collapsed because of mismanagement and outright fraud.

But there is a silver lining to the disaster. In an effort to establish bank patron’s identities, bank workers at the time recorded the names and family relationships of account holders, sometimes taking brief oral histories. This practice created the largest single repository of lineage-linked African-American records known to exist. It’s estimated that 8-10 million African Americans living today have ancestors who deposited money in the Freedman’s Bank. 

So, if this information was available for over 100 years, why wasn’t it used? The problem was that the data lacked effective indexes. The only way to use it was to pore over seemingly random records.
In 2000 an 11-year project was completed to index the records, to make them digitally searchable. Back in the early 2000s, the records were available, at cost, on a CD you could use on your computer. As online technology improved, they became available, at no cost, at
Freedman's Bank Records CD-ROM cover

The indexing project started In 1989. Marie Taylor, an employee of the Family and Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, set out to unlock the information trapped in the Freedman’s Bank records. 

It was going to be a big project. It would require a lengthy, consistent volunteer crew to extract and link the 480,000 names contained in the records. Taylor and project co-director Darius Gray, enlisted the voluntary help of inmates at the Utah State Prison. The Church had previously established a family history center at the prison, where inmates voluntarily donate their time to family history projects. The unique facility occupied three rooms filled with microfilm readers, microfiche readers, and 30 computer stations. The entire process involved approximately 550 inmates who vied for the opportunity to contribute their free time to the project. Theirs was a freewill gift–not a prison work assignment.

The names on these records were real people–men and women who had little education, little money, and little anticipation of what the future would ultimately yield. Today they can be found, once again linking those families so long and tragically separated.

I attended a presentation about these records at a Black History Month event in 2002. A Prairie View A&M history professor said, “Genealogy could help in solving some of the social problems today.  Once you realize who these people were, that you have an obligation to them, that you can’t let them down, it changes what you’ll do.”

In short, connecting to ancestors—connecting family—civilizes people. Civilized people become more prosperous and thriving.

That was a big project. But, as technology improves, things are getting even better.

This past week I learned about some more recent indexing work, on records from the Freedmen’s Bureau. This is yet another project of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Family Search, the Church’s free-for-everyone online genealogy site.

According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture website,

Commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands was created by Congress at the end of the Civil War to assist in the reconstruction of Southern society and the transition of formerly enslaved individuals to freedom and citizenship. Administered by the War Department, the Bureau followed the record-keeping system inspired by the war effort and the expansion of the Federal Government it required. These handwritten records include letters, labor contracts, lists of food rations issued, indentures of apprenticeship, marriage and hospital registers, and census lists. They provide a unique view into the social conditions of the South at the end of the war, especially the lives of newly freed individuals.
Here's the story I heard this week: On June 19, 2015, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project of Family Search was challenged to index 1.5 million Civil War records, which identified more than 4 million people. One year and one day later—they completed indexing all those records.

A School provided by the Freedmen's Bureau
photo from the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The searchable records were presented to the Smithsonian African American Museum—in time for its recent opening. There’s a kiosk in the museum where you can search records. You can also do that search online through

But that’s not the end of the story. In the next phase of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, Family Search is collaborating with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture to transcribe word-for-word every document in the collection, and make them searchable.

You can volunteer to help with the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project.

The website says, “To date, volunteers have transcribed over 200,000 pages from 16 Smithsonian units. With almost 2 million individual records in the collection, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will be the largest crowdsourcing project ever sponsored by the Smithsonian.”

To get involved, all you need is a computer, an ability to read cursive, and a little spare time here and there. Here is the Transcription Center’s project page, where you can “start contributing today”:

The last verse of the Old Testament, Malachi 4:6, says God “shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers.” That seems to be happening—for all of God’s children. Wherever that turning of hearts happens, the decay of savagery is healed by the powers of civilization.

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