Rediscovering the Past, Rebuilding a Heritage

by Matthew Chase

freedmens-bureau-1134169_960_720For many black individuals and families, retracing their ancestry is an opportunity afforded to a few. Before the end of the Civil War, blacks were still considered the enslaved property of their owners, and their humanity and very identities were mistreated as such. Slaves were even denied having their names on official documentation. Tragically, this has resulted in the loss of black ancestry, history, and memory that echoes today. It is only until recently that the black community have now been given the chance to rediscover these lost parts of their past with the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. The project served to  digitally archive and make freely accessible the records of nearly 4 million freed slaves as they transitioned from slavery to citizenship. The records originated from the Freedmen’s Bureau, established in 1865 to assist with this transition as well as provide education, housing, and healthcare. For the first time in U.S. history, the names of these freed slaves were recorded and restored. The records also contain financial information, marriages, birth dates, and slave ownership histories.

The project owes to the ambitious collaboration of FamilySearch International with 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. With the help of over 25,000 volunteers, almost 2 million records have been indexed and made freely available online for the public. The project was completed on June 20, 2016, and now families can search for lost relatives and reconnect with their ancestors during the era of slavery.

You can access this impressive database by visiting FamilySearch’s historical record collections. On the Filter option by the collection box, type in “freed” to search the records. FamilySearch is currently inviting stories from people finding their ancestors in these records. Stories are to be submitted by email at discoverfreedmen@familysearch.org. Selected stories will be featured in a video during the Freedmen’s Bureau Project’s celebration event on December 6, 2016, in the Oprah Winfrey theater at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is an amazing example of how marginalized communities are using digital spaces to preserve their cultural history and heritage. Another project allowed for migrant refugee children to create videos and animated narratives to not only tell their stories, but also to inform transnational policies. The Cree and other Native American tribes have used digital technologies preserve cultural artifacts such as their languages and their oral traditions as well.

Although we live in an increasingly digitized world, who gets to write and tell history remains unequally in the hands of white voices. Voices of color have been chronically left out of the history books and out of our school curricula. While these projects have made significant headway in telling the stories and the lives of the silenced, we still need to incorporate them into the mainstream consciousness and collective memory.  The Freedmen’s Bureau Project not only allows for black communities to reconnect with the past, but also provides all of us an opportunity to critically bridge our nation’s past with the present and the future. Sharon Leslie Morgan, founder of the nonprofit Our Black Ancestry Foundation, told the following to USA Today:

“In order for us to deal with contemporary issues that we have today – racism, black boys being shot down in the streets – you have to confront the past. The land was stolen from the Native Americans. The labor was provided for free by African slaves. The entire foundation of American capitalism is based on slavery, on a free labor market. People don’t want to deal with that and you have to.”

Slavery may have ended, but the impact of racial inequalities is still felt today. We only have to look outside our windows to find the evidence: to see that racism is still very much alive in the violence against and exploitation of communities of color. History has been continuously written to conceal the voices and struggles of the marginalized. It is now time for those same voices to take their turn at the pen.

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