The Museum is focusing attention on the post-Civil War transition of enslaved people to freedom by making accessible the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
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.
Using the Records Online
The Freedmen's Bureau Records database allows family historians, genealogists, students and scholars to search for the names of individuals from more than X million records from 13 states and the District of Columbia between the years, 1863 - 1877. It also provides access to digital copies of the original handwritten records, allowing for the first time for many African Americans, an ability to discover their family history and genealogy before the era of the Civil War.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project
The Museum has begun a collaboration with the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center to digitize the original handwritten documents to make them fully searchable to researchers as part of the Freedmen's Bureau records database. The SI Transcription Center is a platform for digital volunteers to transcribe and review transcriptions of Smithsonian collections. With almost 2 million individual records in the collection, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will be the largest crowd sourcing project ever sponsored by the Smithsonian.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will transcribe word-for-word every document in the collection. Once completed, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will allow full text searches that provide access to both digital copies of original records and fully transcribed copies of the records. The two projects together, provide different ways for researchers to search and access the information found in the Freedmen’s Bureau records. In addition, these transcribed records will be keyword searchable, reducing the effort required to find a person or topic. Providing online versions of the original documents will make it more likely more people will use these records, increasing our understanding of the post-Civil War era and our knowledge of post-Emancipation family life.
The Freedmen’s Bureau in History
As the Civil War drew to a close, President Lincoln and members of Congress debated how to reconstruct Southern society and reunite the nation. They were particularly concerned about how to help formerly enslaved individuals make the transition to freedom and citizenship. As one response, in March 1865 Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as The Freedmen’s Bureau.
The Bureau was responsible for providing assistance to four million formerly enslaved individuals and hundreds of thousands of impoverished Southern whites. The Bureau set up offices in major cities in the 15 Southern and border states and the District of Columbia. Under-funded by Congress and opposed by President Andrew Johnson, the Bureau only operated between 1865 and 1872.
The Bureau provided food, clothing, medical care, and legal representation; promoted education; helped legalize marriages; and assisted African American soldiers and sailors in securing back pay, enlistment bounties and pensions. In addition, the Bureau promoted a system of labor contracts to replace the slavery system and tried to settle freedmen and women on abandoned or confiscated land. The Bureau was also responsible for protecting freedmen and women from intimidation and assaults by Southern whites.
The Freedmen’s Bureau plays a key role in the Museum’s exhibitions Slavery and Freedom and Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1876-1968. In these exhibitions, the Freedmen’s Bureau provides a backdrop against which we see African Americans resisting white efforts to deny them “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”