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Freedman's Records Help African Americans Trace Heritage - 2002-02-06

Some Americans can trace their heritage hundreds of years to the "old country" from which their ancestors came. But the forebears of millions of blacks were slaves in the American South. They were given only first names, and sometimes the last names of their masters. So African Americans' search for their family roots can be difficult. Two historical treasure troves that were made public just last year will certainly help.

As the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s wound down, it was clear that millions of slaves would soon be set free. So the U.S. Congress created two agencies to help freed blacks cope with life amid the white southerners who had held them in bondage.

One was the Freedmen's Bureau, a sort of social service agency for free blacks in what was called the "Reconstruction" period after the Civil War. The other was the Freedman's Bank, which was designed to be a safe place for former slaves to keep their meager funds.

Each kept careful records involving ex-slaves. These documents could be extremely helpful to African Americans who are trying to trace their family origins. But they have been filed away in old boxes or on reels of unindexed microfilm, and thus useful only to the most dogged of researchers.

But that is all changing, beginning with an announcement about the Freedman's Bank records.

"The Freedman Bank records may be more than just historical records. They may be the Rosetta Stone, the piece that allows you to go in and make a family connection," William Haley said.

William Haley is a son of Alex Haley, the author of Roots, the best-selling book about a captured slave and his descendants in America. Mr. Haley spoke in Washington, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints or Mormons announced a breakthrough to help families search the Freedman's Bank records.

It is estimated that nearly 10 million blacks have ancestors who were customers of the Freedman's Bank. It lasted for just nine years, until the bank collapsed because of mismanagement and fraud.

Eventually the bank's handwritten records ended up at the National Archives in Washington, where they were reproduced on microfilm. But these millions of records from 37 branches of the Freedman's Bank were never indexed.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which compiles information about families of all religions at more than 3,400 family history centers around the world, made copies of the Freedman's Bank microfilm reels at the Archives. Then over 11 years, Mormons and other volunteers indexed the records and transferred the information to a single compact disc. That disc is now for sale for less than seven dollars.

Darius Gray, who helped direct the Mormons' project, says inmates at Utah State Prison did much of the painstaking work.

"They were willing and anxious, and I think it's important to note that this is something they did in their off-time. This isn't something they're doing as a prison job. In the hours that they have to themselves, this became an important part of many, many lives: over 550 men working over an eleven-year period of time," he said.

The Freedman's Bank compact disk contains fascinating nuggets about almost half a million freed slaves: Amanda Harris, brought up - Atlanta, Georgia. No age given. complexion - yellow. Occupation 'at home.' Husband - Thomas. Children - Rosa, Bell, Robert, Carol (dead), three died young. Was carried to Atlanta as a child. Taken from her mother by the traders. Was too small to know any of her relatives.

One historian, Howard Dodson, director of the Schomburg Center for Black Research in New York City, has said that having these Freedman's Bank records easily accessible on compact disc provides "a bridge back across the divide from freedom to slavery."

And the news is also good for those who would like to examine the vast records of the Freedmen's Bureau, which helped ex-slaves record marriages, births, and deaths; claim land taken from their former masters; and settle legal disputes.

Congress passed a preservation act ordering that the tattered and yellowed Freedmen's Bureau letters and reports stored in thousands of boxes at the National Archives be indexed and put on microfilm.

The job was assigned to Howard University, which was founded in Washington in 1867 by the Freedmen's Bureau commissioner, Union general O.O. Howard. Howard's president has promised that "an army of scholars" will attack the microfilming and indexing project. One of the scholars in that army will be Howard history professor Joseph Reidy, who calls the Freedmen's Bureau records "priceless."

"They provide a kind of window into our society in one of its most traumatic moments," he said. "The social institutions of the South, all of which centered on the institution of slavery before the Civil War, were no longer functioning. From the standpoint of the former slaves, the world appeared to be beginning all over again. The records speak to areas of the human condition that you find only in other times of great trauma, for example, during the Great Depression of the Twentieth Century."

The Freedmen's Bureau offered former slaves the chance to pick last names by which they and their descendants would be known. Its records list these names, as well as slave names and the names and locations of slaveholders. This information can sometimes help African Americans trace the slave ships that that carried their ancestors across the Atlantic Ocean, the African ports from which they departed, and the tribes from which they were bought or captured.

The U.S. Census from 1860 and before did not count slaves. It's as if they did not exist. The 1870 Census, during the heart of Reconstruction, only sporadically listed free blacks.

The Mormons released the complete record of the 1880 Census, which the church has been digitizing onto compact disk for 17 years. Following upon the work with Freedman's Bank and Freedmen's Bureau records, these 1880 census data represent African Americans' latest genealogical jackpot.

Part of VOA's Black History Month series