The National Museum of African American History and Culture is focusing attention on the post-Civil War transition of enslaved people to freedom by making accessible the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project
The National Museum of African American History and Culture has collaborated with the Smithsonian Transcription Center to transcribe the nearly 2 million image files from the Freedmen’s Bureau records. The SI Transcription Center is a platform where digital volunteers can transcribe and review transcriptions of Smithsonian collections. The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will be the largest crowdsourcing initiative ever sponsored by the Smithsonian.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will allow anyone with a computer to research his or her family’s history from the comfort of their home. The National Museum of African American History and Culture started this project in an effort to help African Americans discover their ancestors and to help historians better understand the years following the Civil War.
History of the Freedmen's Bureau
Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in 1865 to assist in the reconstruction of the South and to aid formerly enslaved individuals transition to freedom and citizenship. Administered by the War Department, the Bureau followed the department’s war-inspired record-keeping system. 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 lives of newly freed individuals and the social conditions of the South after the war.
The Bureau was responsible for providing assistance to four million formerly enslaved individuals and hundreds of thousands of impoverished Southern whites. 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 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 Freedmen’s Bureau plays a key role in the Museum’s Slavery and Freedom and Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: The Era of Segregation, 1877-1968 exhibitions. 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.” The Freedmen’s Bureau records are also featured in an Interactive exhibition in the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center on the Museum’s second floor.
In 2009, the National Museum of African American History and Culture partnered with FamilySearch International to create a searchable name index of the Freedmen’s Bureau records. Sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, FamilySearch International is the world’s largest genealogical organization. Along with a host of genealogical services, the organization maintains freely accessible online genealogical databases. The Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum also collaborate in the Freedmen’s Bureau Project.
The National Archives and Records Administration preserves the original Freedmen’s Bureau records and sold an entire set of the microfilmed records to FamilySearch.
You’ll find African American genealogists are quite excited about the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. Each Indexed document brings us closer to reclaiming our ancestral heritage and historical past.Hollis Gentry NMAAHC Genealogy Specialist
On Juneteenth 2015, The Freedmen’s Bureau Project was publicly launched as FamilySearch made digital scans of the original documents available online for indexing.
Within a year, over 19,000 individuals contributed to indexing nearly 1.7 million records. The indexed Freedmen’s Bureau records now are searchable. The records and index also will be featured in the Museum’s Robert Frederick Smith Explore More Family History Center.
The Freedmen’s Bureau Project will continue indexing more records from the Freedmen’s Bureau as they become available from the National Archives and Records Administration.
Working on the Freedman’s Bureau Project has shed a light on the past for me that I never would’ve otherwise been able to experience. In working with these records, I gained a new understanding about how people lived. I hope the work we’ve done will be valuable for generations to come as people delve into their pasts.Libby Herndon Museum Volunteer
Using the Records Online
The FamilySearch online database allows researchers to search for individual names. It then provides access to digital copies of the original handwritten records. For many people, this will prove to be a key to finding their family history and genealogy before the era of the Civil War.
Once completed, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will allow full text searches that provide access to both digital copies and transcriptions of the original records. Thus, the two projects provide different ways for researchers search and access the content of the Freedmen’s Bureau records.
Family historians, genealogists, students, and scholars around the world will have easy online access to these records. In addition, these transcribed records will be keyword searchable, vastly reducing the effort required to find a person or topic. Anyone who has tried to read nineteenth-century handwritten letters knows just how frustrating and time-consuming this can be. Providing typewritten versions of the original documents will vastly increase our understanding of the post-Civil War era and our knowledge of post-Emancipation family life.