New Freedmen’s Bureau collection on Ancestry.com can help African Americans trace family roots
“It's going to change our perception about freed people and the lengths they went through in order to have control over their own lives,” said Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado
The world’s largest digitized and searchable collection of Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records is now available on Ancestry.com, providing free online access to information that can help the descendants of formerly enslaved people in the U.S. learn more about their family histories.
This significant addition of more than 3.5 million records to the online family history resource can provide meaningful breakthroughs for African Americans trying to trace their family roots because the documents are likely the first time newly freed Black people appeared in records after emancipation in 1863. Prior to that, most enslaved people were excluded from the Census and federal documents.
“I think the data that is being made available now is just such an enormous wellspring of information to help, sort of paints a picture of what life was like then. As well as specifically for individuals, to connect them to people in the past who otherwise, they would never know about,” said African American history and Reconstruction era expert Michael B. Moore.
During a virtual roundtable, hosted by Ancestry, Moore along with professional genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith and Morehouse Africana Studies professor Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado discussed the establishment of the bureau, a critical, yet often overlooked part of American history.
They also highlighted the bureau’s continued impact on the United States today and how the digitization of these records gives Black Americans opportunities to make new discoveries about their ancestry.
“Well, the Freedmen’s Bureau, in my opinion, is probably the first large-scale social service program that we see in our country’s history,” said Sewell-Smith. “We are really looking at this broad, just expansive program covering 15 states, you know, where you are really getting a bird’s eye view into some of these really small communities where folks were struggling in some ways to try and get information on this time span.”
Now that The Freedmen’s Bureau collection of records is accessible online, anyone can create a free account and simply type in a name to begin a search, instead of the long and often arduous process of searching for records via microfilm at a branch of the National Archives.
“For me personally, you know, I spent 14 years going through this collection going image by image. So with the collection, in the manner in which it’s being released, that changes the game quite a bit for a lot of people ,” she said.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established by an act of Congress near the end of the American Civil War in 1865, to assist formerly enslaved Black people. It was in operation until about 1872. The bureau provided food, housing, education and medical care to more than 4 million people, including poor whites and veterans who were displaced by the war.
It also helped formerly enslaved people negotiate labor contracts, legalize marriages and locate lost relatives.
However, despite its significance and the ways these records can be instrumental for Black Americans wanting to discover more about their ancestors, awareness of the Freedmen’s Bureau is very low.
According to a Harris Poll survey by Ancestry, 72% of Americans surveyed have never heard of the Freedmen’s Bureau. However, nearly all of those who are familiar with the bureau believe it was a turning point in American history and that it still impacts the lives of Americans today.
That’s why these Black history experts say increasing awareness of and access to this information is a key step toward a better understanding of America’s complex history.
“It’s going to change our perception about freed people and the lengths they went through in order to have control over their own lives,” said Dr. Sims-Alvarado, whose work focuses on the history of the Reconstruction era.
She noted that many of the historical works written on the era do not tell the stories of freed Black people.
“Those writing history did not consider the perspectives of how Black people experienced and defined freedom. But, we see how they sought their own freedom and personal, political and economic autonomy,” Sims-Alvarado explained.
The millions of detailed records maintained by the bureau, including labor contracts, letters, banking records and marriages, tell many stories. They weave together narratives about Black people who you don’t normally see in the pages of history.
“Finding your ancestors’ names and stories on Ancestry is possible and unearthing them can shine a light that helps guide us going forward,” said Sewell-Smith. “Learning about the resiliency of those who came before us and the obstacles they overcame inspires us to know we can do the same.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau collection is now available for everyone to search for free at www.Ancestry.com/Freedmens.
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