A million and a half handwritten records from the 1860s about newly-freed slaves will no doubt be invaluable for black people trying to trace their family history.
The records belong to the Freedmen’s Bureau, an administrative body created by Congress in 1865 to assist slaves in 15 states and the District of Columbia transition into free citizenship. Before that time, slaves were legally regarded as property in the US and their names were not officially documented. They often appeared only as dash marks – even on their owners’ records.
African Americans trying to trace family history today regularly hit the research equivalent of a brick wall prior to 1870, when black people were included in the US census for the first time.
Now a major project run by several organisations is beginning to digitise the 1.5 million handwritten records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which feature more than four million names and are held by various federal bodies, for full online access.
The records will be online by late next year, to coincide with the opening of the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington.
Hollis Gentry, a genealogy specialist at the Smithsonian, said at the announcement of the project in Los Angeles on Friday:
The records serve as a bridge to slavery and freedom. You can look at some of the original documents that were created at the time when these people were living. They are the earliest records detailing people who were formerly enslaved. We get a sense of their voice, their dreams.
I predict we’ll see millions of living people find living relatives they never knew existed. That will be a tremendous blessing and a wonderful, healing experience.
Volunteers are scanning and digitizing the handwritten records, and they'll be available as they're processed. The website: discoverfreedmen.org.