On Saturday, September 26, community members met to learn about and index Freedmen’s Bureau records at a church in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Thom Reed, Senior Marketing Manager with FamilySearch International, presented a historical perspective about the Freedmen’s Bureau and the importance of indexing and making these Freedmen’s records more broadly available.
For most of the attendees, this was the first time they had heard about the Freedmen’s Bureau in any detail and certainly the first time they had indexed these important records. With a little help from Thom and others, everyone was able to index and submit several batches of records.
This indexing event was part of the New Mexico Statewide Day of Service in which thousands of volunteers joined together to serve others and their communities. Dozens of projects were completed on this Day of Service. In addition to this indexing event, projects included cemetery cleanup, harvesting fruit and collecting food for local food banks, litter pickup, and many more.
Emancipation freed nearly 4 million slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was established to help transition “freed men” from slavery to citizenship, providing food, housing, education, and medical care. And for the first time in U.S. history, the names of those individuals were systematically recorded and preserved for future generations.
To help bring thousands of records to light, the Freedmen’s Bureau 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.
For many African Americans, their family history efforts stop with the 1870 US Census because prior to 1870, slaves had not been included in US Census records. Once these indexed records become available in 2016, the Freedmen’s Bureau records will help millions discover their roots.
Thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online. No specific time commitment is required, and anyone may participate. Volunteers simply sign on, pull up as many documents as they like, and enter the names and dates into the fields provided. Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to build their family trees and connect with their ancestors.
Elizabeth Aikin, a representative of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of New Mexico, is one of the attendees who had never tried indexing before. Yet, with a little patience she read through pages of Freedmen’s Bureau labor contracts to transcribe the names within those records. Elizabeth completed several batches in just a few hours. She was inspired by the opportunity and importance of making the Freedmen’s Bureau records available and thereby helping millions of African American’s discover their roots and reconnect with their stories.