A decade later: Freedman's Bank still connecting families

Freedman's Bank records play a big role in connecting African-American families

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

"The release of the Freedman's Bank records is a significant step towards making valuable records available for African-Americans searching for their roots," said President Henry B. Eyring, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. "We hope that in coming years more emphasis will be placed on the growing need for such resources."

Eleven years later

Today the Freedman's Bank records are easily accessed in public libraries and on a variety of genealogical websites.

The LDS Church's free website, FamilySearch.org, updated the records as recently as 2010. Search "Freed" under FamilySearch's all historical record collections and you will find more than 842,200 additional records among the Freedmen's Bureau Marriages, 1815-1869, and Freedmen's Bureau Letters or Correspondence, 1865-1872.

From May to December 2011, more than 5,100 people accessed the Freedman's Bank records on FamilySearch.org, according to James L. Ison, a FamilySearch manager. That calculates out to an average of approximately 550 visitors per month.

"It's affecting lives around the country," said Gray, who travels from one coast to another presenting at genealogical conferences. "There is significant involvement by the African-American community in family history and it's growing."

More African-American records are emerging. A historical society in Virginia, where slavery began in the American colonies in the early 1600s, recently discovered the identities of 3,200 slaves from unpublished private documents. The "Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names" website is now an online resource, according to CNN."

Another website, afrigeneas.com, provides a wealth of African-American historical information.

A recent article on Buffalonews.com featured several African-American genealogy success stories.

Many are intimidated by the required detective work, Riley said, but others are proving it can be done.

"Our ancestors are calling to us. They want us to find them," said Riley, a retired educator and administrator. "They are there; it's just a matter of finding the proper record to locate them. But be patient; it's not going to happen overnight."

Jordan agreed.

"We shouldn't give up; we should keep looking," she said. "When your ancestors are ready to be found, they will make themselves known. They are not just a name on a piece of paper."

Knowing your heritage

Gray's family history journey began around 1987 with a phone call and a piece of paper. He was invited by a friend to visit the Family History Library and called his mother to verify his father's birth date. His mother told him she had found a piece of paper that not only had information about his father, but also contained birth and death dates of other family members, and was in the handwriting of his father, who had been dead for decades. Gray asked his mother where she found it, because he couldn't recall seeing it before. She told him she didn't know, that "it just showed up."

"I don't think it just happened. I like to think of angels at work," Gray said. "Making that paper available was the seed for me. It's been a blessing. I've seen others have that seed come to them and it opens a door."

Gray doesn't have to go back too far to find the difficult times. His grandfather, James Lewis Gray, was born a slave in Missouri in 1859. But knowing his heritage gives Gray a sense of pride. He says it's important to teach this lesson to young people.

"I know who I am and I'm proud of what we have contributed to this nation," he said. "Doing genealogy and family history isn't about names and dates, it's about the people and their lives. It's about connecting families."

More than a decade later, Gray and others agree Freedman's Bank records are still helping individuals to accomplish that.

email: ttoone@desnews.com

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