The Smithsonian and the Freedmen's Bureau Project

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Hollis Gentry is a genealogy specialist at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture Library and Archives. She spoke at the Access and Preservation Day at RootsTech 2018. Her presentation title was “The Smithsonian and the Freedmen's Bureau Project.” Hollis noted how we, as genealogists, extend generosity to each other. In her case, she started doing genealogy when she was 13 years old. There was always a librarian to help me check out books, she said.

Hollis posed the question, why is the Smithsonian involved in the Freedmen’s Bureau records?

According to the Smithsonian website, “Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in 1865 to assist in the reconstruction of the South and to aid formerly enslaved individuals transition to freedom and citizenship.” Hollis said that the Freedmen’s Bureau came out of the period after the Civil War where we were asking, “How do we go back and heal ourselves?” We were coming out of the period when people were property, not people.

This group of records is very important to former slaves. It is also important to those who sided with the north, some who sided with the south, and those that were caught in the middle. These records are essential to understanding the 19th century, she said. Schools don’t often teach reconstruction. These records reveal what your ancestors actually experienced on a day-to-day basis. Hollis said if you are looking for your ancestor’s voice, you might find them in the Freedmen’s Bureau records.

Sometimes the Smithsonian is referred to as the nation’s attic. Just like grandma’s attic, she doesn’t know everything that is in there. In 172 years the Smithsonian has collected a lot of stuff. Hollis said they have thousands of collections. Artifacts number in the millions. Only 10% are available to the public.
The Smithsonian is faced with the challenge, how do they provide access to the remaining 90%? Their goal is to reach 1 billion people a year with a digital strategy. Part of that strategy is the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archive and a collection-based search center.

Hollis said the mission of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is exploring American history through the lens of the African American experience. The Freedmen’s Bureau records fit nicely into that mission. It speaks to American history in general, she said.

Hollis said one of the better ways to engage stakeholders is to involve them in transcriptions. Once transcribed, it is immediately available for research. Full transcriptions make possible discoveries that might not be possible with a name index. Each Smithsonian museum has its own project, which can be found at transcription.si.edu.

Hollis showed several examples of significant finds in the Freedman’s Bank and the Freedmen’s Bureau records. One example reunited the family of Samuel Sumner with his father Mills Sumner, Jr., mother Rachel Hodges Byrd, and siblings Tom, Johnny, Ellen, Henrietta, and Katy.

One was a letter from Delphina Mendenhall, widow of George C. Mendenhall, to Col. E. Whittlesey, assistant commissioner of the Freedmen’s Bureau. George and Delphina were Quakers that had freed their slaves. The letter reports the conditions of the slaves after going to the North. Hollis said she would never have found the letter without a transcription. (Freedmen’s Bureau > North Carolina Assistant Commissioner, Letters Received, Entered in Register 1, J-R, Part 1 > page 239 of 284.)

Another example is the case of George Shackleford. The bureau’s records include documents about refugees and abandoned lands. George Shackleford owned land in North Carolina that was seized by the U.S. government. George had inherited the land upon the death of his father, Henry. George and his brother, John, were sailors and had been out of the country since 1860. They had not rebelled against the government. George was living in China and was applying for restoration of the land. (See Freedmen’s Bureau > North Carolina Assistant Commissioner, Letters Received, Entered in Register 2, A-E, Part 4 > page 64 of 262.)

These records are valuable to more than just African Americans and are available to all.

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