Family History

Celebrate Black History Month – Discovering African American Genealogy

February is designated as Black History Month, a time to celebrate and honor the history and contributions of African Americans. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH ) theme for 2018 is “African Americans in Times of War,” honoring brave men and women who served their country in the armed forces. It commemorates 100 years since the end of the First World War in 1918.

Activities and events planned across the country will provide African American families opportunities to reflect on their heritage and the sacrifices of ancestors who served in the armed forces.

Researching one’s Black heritage has become easier since 2015, when the Church acquired copies of post-Civil War records created by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

African American genealogy has become easier through the Church's acquisition of Freedmen's Bureau records in 2015. Photo courtesy CC BY 2.0 by Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

African American genealogy has become easier through the Church’s acquisition of Freedmen’s Bureau records in 2015. Photo courtesy CC BY 2.0 by Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Emancipation freed nearly 4 million slaves, and this bureau was set up to help transition them out of slavery. It provided food, housing, education, and medical care. It also solemnized marriages, provided legal representation, and helped manage land disputes. In some cases, for the first time in U.S. history, it meant the names of these individuals were recorded for posterity.

Ken Nelson, a Civil War Era Record Specialist for FamilySearch, said, “Within the records of the bureau are names of that first generation of African Americans to experience freedom.”

Making these records assessable became high priority. It had taken 11 years to digitize ten percent of the records, but after an indexing initiative in June of 2015, it took only one year for volunteers to finish the other 90 percent! To accomplish this objective, FamilySearch joined efforts with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the California African American Museum.

Over 25 thousand volunteers indexed nearly 1.8 million names of men, women, and children that are now searchable online. Millions can find their ancestors and build their family trees at FamilySearch.org. Records include military, census, vital records, slave ownership records, and bank records. Black family history research guides and instructional videos are also available for researchers.

The records are also now a part of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Elder D. Todd Christofferson presented the database to the museum after the project’s completion. He said, “Countless African Americans can now trace their family history and shine the light on their courageous ancestors.”

Visit DiscoverFreedmen.org for records, histories and stories, as well as volunteer opportunities with related projects.

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