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Freedmen’s Bureau records help blacks search their roots

LOS ANGELES — The digital release of records involving four million 19th century slaves will make it significantly easier for millions of black Americans to trace their family tree and identify or confirm genealogical histories, researchers say.

The release, announced last week, is considered to be one of the most significant developments in genealogical research in the last 50 years, organizers said.

“This is big,” said Matt Ball, director of public affairs for the North America West Area, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “The Freedmen’s Bureau records appear to be the most significant breakthrough and most meaningful resource of African-American family history records ever uncovered.

“The church, along with the Afro-American Genealogical Society, FamilySearch International and the Smithsonian have joined as partners to bring the records into the public light.They will open a window to our past and allow families to find and become acquainted with their resilient, persistent and often inspiring ancestors,” Ball said.

The records comprise the most abundant and extensive look at the African-American experience during the post-Civil War and Reconstruction eras, researchers said, largely because they reveal full names, residences and often the names of former owners and plantations.

The records release is based on historical documents from the Freedmen’s Bureau, a government entity established in 1865 to help newly freed slaves transition to citizenship. The bureau provided food, housing, education, and medical care as former slaves fought to overcome obstacles such as starvation and being separated from their homes and families.

In the process, the bureau also gathered personal information, including marriage and family information, military service, banking, school, hospital and property records on as many as four million African Americans.

That information now is being indexed by several genealogical and historical agencies that will make the records available and accessible online, organizers said. Once the records are indexed, locating an ancestor may be as easy as visiting the website, inputting the first and last name in the search section, and clicking it, researchers said.

“Everyone needs to know who they are,” said Diane Watson, a former congresswoman and U.S. ambassador from Los Angeles. “They need to know something about their background. They need to know the traits that run through their lines. The Freedmen’s Project will fill in those gaps.”

“Individuals that do not know their family history can begin by creating a family tree online for free at FamilySearch.org and invite family and friends to expand that tree, share photos, and talk to the oldest living relatives to see what information they may have,” said Paul Nauta, a spokesman for FamilySearch International, one of the organizations leading the initiative.”

These methods are vital for African Americans who are trying to locate their ancestors, organizers said.

“The Freedmen’s Bureau Records are an important piece in satisfying the need to confirm and document our family origins and experiences and to see how they fit into the history of this country and its development,” said local researcher Gerard McKay.

The records are expected to be fully indexed and accessible online next year.

For more information on the records and indexing, visit DiscoverFreedmen.org.