A thrill of victory filled the air at the Klein Texas Stake Family History Center in north Houston as Jesse Williams, president of the Houston chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, successfully completed his first attempt at indexing records from the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. Mr. Williams, a 35-year Army veteran, became interested in genealogy at the death of his mother five years ago. He will lead the chapter’s 50 members as they join thousands of online volunteers to prepare these records for public access.
“We are excited about it because it gives our chapter an opportunity to work together on something. This is exciting because we are actually taking part in history,” he said.
On March 3, 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, better known as the Freedmen’s Bureau. It assisted the newly freed slaves to transition to their new lives as American citizens, to reunite them with family members and to become self-sufficient. The archives of the Bureau from 1865-1872 provide records including marriages, labor contracts, land and property, medical care, military service and school documents. These records have preserved details of services rendered to 4 million freed slaves, and include names as well as family relations and brief oral histories.
FamilySearch International, the largest genealogical society in the world, purchased copies of these records for the purpose of indexing them. Indexing involves volunteers reading the original records and capturing pertinent information that is typed into searchable fields. FamilySearch has partnered with other organizations with the goal to complete this project in time for the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in the fall of 2016 so that it may be freely accessible online to all.
Mr. Williams’s wife and fellow AAHGS member, Joanne, was quickly drawn into indexing. “You can see deeply into family history just through one document. And then you can follow leads to other records that might be related. I can see where this is going to benefit a lot of people. There is definitely a lot of interest here,” she said.
According to Mr. Williams, “One of our members came back and told us that she found ancestors in the (older) Freedmen Bank Records.” This adds even more anticipation for what lies ahead.
Jill Bluth, family history director, and Linda Carrillo, indexing coordinator, both of the Klein Texas Stake, provided the training for the Williamses. Sister Bluth’s enthusiasm was apparent as she spoke of the records’ importance. “The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is ... raising people from the dust. For the first time their names are documented, their stories are documented. Indexing is what fuels or powers online searches. These records have been sitting in archives, now with indexing [many people] will be available to connect with their ancestors,” she said.
Sister Carrillo eased fears that indexing might be difficult or scary. Each set of records is organized into small batches. “There are step-by-step project instructions online and field ‘Help’ sections for each record,” she said. “Two people index each record, so if there is a discrepancy, a third experienced arbitrator makes a decision,” she added, with a no-worries smile.
Helen Jackson Graham, the Houston Public Affairs Freedmen’s Bureau project specialist, will be organizing indexing training for AAHGS and other groups. AAHGS chapters across the country will be involved in this work. As an experienced genealogical researcher herself, Sister Graham noted, “Prior to 1870, our ancestors were often listed as property. Now we can see their names. With these Freedmen’s Bureau Records being indexed, people will be able to find information they didn’t even know existed. So they may be looking for a marriage certificate and find, ‘Oh, there are military pension records,’ ‘Oh, there are hospital records or school records,’ and that is done with one search by typing in a name so that will save a lot of blank trips to a courthouse and be less expensive,” she said.
Thom Reed, product manager at FamilySearch was quoted in mormonnewsroom.org as saying, “We’re calling for volunteers, specifically those that have ties to these records, the African American community, to get involved with this to help us break down this brick wall to help us overcome these barriers in genealogical research and making these family connections.” Church members in general are not yet invited to participate in this particular indexing project.
The project’s website is http://www.Discoverfreedmen.org.