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Inside the Digital Effort to Trace the Descendants of Freed Slaves

The Freedmen's Bureau Project will give millions of African-Americans the means to explore their ancestry.

Over 1.5 million documents that record the family histories of Civil War era African-Americans will be digitized and made available online for the first time, providing African-Americans with a vast and vital resource with which to research their family history. The effort, called The Freedmen’s Bureau Project, is being spearheaded by FamilySearch International, a nonprofit geneology organization, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the California African American Museum.


“I predict we’ll see millions of living people find living relatives they never knew existed. That will be a tremendous blessing and a wonderful, healing experience,” said Hollis Gentry, a geneologist specialist at the Smithsonian, to the Guardian.

They are calling on volunteers to help transcribe the gargantuan trove of handwritten documents, which detail the family histories of over 4 million freed slaves. The documents, which were collected by the U.S. government during the final stages of the Civil War, were drawn up by the The Freedmen’s Bureau to help facilitate the transition of African-American slaves to free citizens of the United States.

“The indexing of these records will allow many African Americans to create a link to their Civil War-era ancestors for the first time,” said Thom Reed of FamilySearch International in a press release. “This effort will bring to life the names of those who came before us and honor their great legacy, and will allow us to connect our families past and present.”

The records will be organized into a searchable database on the Project’s website. Those who are interested in volunteering their time to the digitization of the documents can sign up here.

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