Freedmen’s Bureau Project Brings ‘Roots’ to Life

3 min read
  • Information Technology
  • Document & Records Management

If watching the remake of the African-American history series Roots this week has encouraged you to check out your own family history, a huge cache of Civil War-era documents is being digitized that can not only help you in your own search, but will let you help others as well.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project, which started in summer 2015, is intended to digitize as many as 1.5 million records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency set up after the Civil War to help the newly freed slaves integrate into society. The project was created as a set of partnerships between FamilySearch International and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro­-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African American Museum.

When emancipation freed nearly 4 million slaves—as much as 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time—the Freedmen’s Bureau was established under an 1865 Congressional order to help transition them from slavery to citizenship, providing food, housing, education, and medical care. It established 4,300 schools and 100 hospitals, and in the process, collected a wealth of information.

“For the first time in U.S. history, the names of those individuals were systematically recorded and preserved for future generations,” notes the project’s website. Its handwritten records, compiled in 15 states and the District of Columbia from 1865 through 1872, include marriage registers, hospital or patient registers, educational records, labor contracts, and indenture or apprenticeship papers.

Altogether, there are about 1.5 million documents, covering as many as 4 million people. They added up to 1,400 linear feet of records in 1872. That translated to 1,882 rolls of microfilm that was scanned into 1.5 million images in 2015. While the records had been available before, they had only been available by searching through them in person, but they help create an image of the world then.

“You most likely found yourself as a refugee,” writes the organization. “You, and your family, were most likely illiterate. You needed to legally establish your name and identity, and to receive some formal education to learn how to at least read and write. You might have been in need of healthcare assistance for medical problems. You certainly needed a place to call your own, so you needed to understand how to navigate the court system to be a landowner or find a place to stay until you could afford rent.”

The importance of records

The project is important because it wasn’t until 1870 that African-Americans were reliably included with surnames in the U. S. census. “When complete, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project will be a virtual Rosetta stone for African Americans seeking to extend their family histories beyond the proverbial brick wall of the 1870 census,” writes Paul Nauto for FamilySearch.

Like a number of other similar digitization projects, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project (which uses the  Twitter hashtag #DiscoverFreedmen) is using crowdsourcing to mine the handwritten documents for names to enter into an online database. Nearly 16,000 volunteers have contributed to the project. In addition to transcribers, the project also includes “arbitrators” who review the records, Nauto writes.

The digitization project, which is 85 percent completed as of last week, is slated to be finished by Juneteenth 2016, a year after it started to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery. Juneteenth, held on June 19, is commemorated as the day emancipation was announced in Texas, and is generally celebrated as the day slavery ended. The project’s completion was also timed with the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled for September 24.  The records will be available as part of a display at the museum, as well as online at, a nonprofit genealogical organization that has also volunteered to transcribe other historical records.

As well as providing a window into our history, the project is also expected to help people find new family members. In addition, the expertise in crowdsourcing and digitizing the records can also be applicable to digitizing other handwritten records.


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