Accessibility links

Breaking News

Tracing Family History Gets Easier for Descendants of American Slaves

Artist James E. Taylor produced this sketch of the Freedmen's Bureau office in Richmond, Virginia, issuing food rations to old and sick former slaves in 1866

Some Americans can trace their heritage back to what we sometimes call the "old country" from which our ancestors came. But the ancestors 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 arduous. But two historical treasure troves certainly help.

Reconstruction era groups kept detailed records

As the U.S. Civil War of the 1860s wound down, the federal 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 that helped former slaves record marriages, births and deaths; claim land taken from their former masters and settle legal disputes.

Fiery abolitionist orator and former escaped slave Frederick Douglass was the last president of the Freedman's Bank
Fiery abolitionist orator and former escaped slave Frederick Douglass was the last president of the Freedman's Bank

The other was the Freedman's Bank, which was designed to be a safe place to keep their funds.

Each institution kept careful records. These documents would have been extremely helpful to African Americans who, later, were trying to trace their family origins. But they were filed away in boxes or on reels of un-indexed microfilm, useful only to the most dogged of researchers.

Utah prisoners and church members index the archive

But that all changed earlier this decade. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as Mormons, meticulously transcribed and then indexed thousands of Freedman's Bank microfilm records onto a single compact disc. More than 500 inmates at Utah State Prison did much of the painstaking work on their own time, not as assigned prison labor.

Here's an example of one record on the disc:

"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."

Howard Dodson, a historian and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City, has said that such records provide what he calls a bridge back across the divide from freedom to slavery.

Freedmen's Bureau records will offer more insights

And the news is also good for those who would like to examine the vast records of the Freedmen's Bureau.

In 2000, Congress ordered that the tattered and yellowed Freedmen's Bureau records stored in thousands of boxes at the National Archives also 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. And once again, the Mormons in Utah are helping.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.