The Freedmen's Bureau Records

The Museum is focusing attention on the post-Civil War transition of enslaved people to freedom by making the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau accessible online.

The United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, commonly known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was created by Congress in 1865 to assist in the political and social reconstruction of post-war Southern states and to help formerly enslaved people make the transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship. In the process, the Bureau created millions of records that contain the names of hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved individuals and Southern white refugees.

Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project  

The Museum has collaborated with the Smithsonian Transcription Center to transcribe more than 1.5 million image files from the Freedmen’s Bureau records. The Transcription Center is a platform where digital volunteers can transcribe and review transcriptions of Smithsonian collections. The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project is the largest crowd sourcing initiative ever sponsored by the Smithsonian.  

Once completed, the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project will allow full text searches that provide access to both images and transcriptions of the original records. Family historians, genealogists, students, and scholars around the world will have online access to these records. In addition, these transcribed records will be keyword searchable, reducing the effort required to find a person or topic. Transcribing these original documents will increase our understanding of the post-Civil War era and our knowledge of post-Emancipation family life.

Help transcribe the Freedmen's Bureau collection

The Museum and the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, in partnership with the North Carolina Government & Heritage Library, are collaborating to host a series of virtual Freedmen’s Bureau transcribe-a-thons across the state.

These events help promote the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project and transcribe the more than 1.7 million files from the Freedmen’s Bureau. Participants will have the opportunity to transcribe records from several regions across North Carolina. 
All events are virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional resources for current and new transcribers including a list of Freedmen's Bureau staff in North Carolina are available on the Freedmen's Bureau Instructions Page.

Get involved and find an event near you! 

  • Saturday, April 17, 2021 (9:00am–1:00pm) 
  • Sheppard Memorial Library 
  • To register contact Greg Needham gneedham@sheppardlibrary.org 
  • Saturday, May 1, 2021 (1:00–4:00pm) 
  • Cumberland County Public Library 
  • To register contact Michelle Gross mgross@cumberland.lib.nc.us 
  • Saturday, June 12, 2021 (12:30–4:30pm)  
  • New Hanover County Public Library  
  • To register contact Jimi Rider JRider@nhcgov.com 
  • Projects Ongoing  
  • Pam Edmondson, Local History Librarian, Edgecombe County Memorial Library  
  • For more information contact Pam Edmondson pedmondson@edgecombelibrary.org 
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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.

The National Archives and Records Administration preserves the original Freedmen’s Bureau records

The Bureau helped support schools like this one in New Bern, North Carolina, to educate newly freed children.

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

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 Museum Genealogy Specialist
Freedman’s Village, Arlington, VA, LOC

Freedman's Village was located on what is now Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, VA. 

Courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-117892

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
Office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, Memphis, TN, NYPL

African Americans reported concerns and filed legal claims with agents at the Bureau’s field offices creating millions of handwritten documents.

Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections