SALT LAKE CITY — Helping to digitize the Freedmen's Bureau records over the last several months has been both an educational and a spiritually sacred experience for Alice Faulkner Burch.
"For the first time, they are known by their names, as family units, with marriage certificates. They were real people," Burch said. "This is my opportunity to help them be more free because they will be known to their descendants."
Burch is one of nearly 16,000 online volunteers who've helped in indexing more than 1 million Civil War-era handwritten records known as the Freedmen's Bureau project.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, launched the campaign last year on Juneteenth (June 19) in Los Angeles, commemorating Emancipation Day more than 150 years ago. Less than nine months later, the project has now surpassed the halfway point, according to FamilySearch International.
"We have completed 50 percent of the indexing and arbitration of the records of this project,” said Thom Reed, a marketing manager for FamilySearch.
When emancipation freed the slaves, the Freedmen's Bureau was established to help them become documented citizens for the first time. Similar to the U.S. Census, names of former slaves were recorded and preserved in ways to help provide housing, education, medical care and food.
More than a century and a half later, volunteers are transcribed these documents to create a searchable online database. Once indexed, an arbitrator verifies the information. Veteran indexer JoAnn Gilbert Jeppsen of Mantua, Box Elder County, Utah, recently arbitrated the 1 millionth Freedmen Bureau record.
"I was just amazed,” said Jeppsen, who has processed labor contracts, pensions, rations and even a murder trial. "I didn’t know the government had these programs for (Civil War–era African-Americans). I just think about what happened to them when they were freed."
With February being Black History Month, Burch committed to indexing records from the Freedmen Bureau project each day. In the process, she has learned a great deal about life during that era, along with a greater appreciation for her heritage and life blessings.
"My life today is so easy compared to what they had to experience. This is just a way for me to give back," Burch said. "They are the foundation. Their struggles, the hope they held on to, are an example to me to keep going forward. It means a lot to me to be able to do this for them."
In recent months, Reed has traveled around the country to cities such as Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Philadelphia; and Richmond, Virginia. He has spoken at events and promoted the Freedmen's Bureau project. It's a project people truly believe in, he said.
Last October, FamilySearch officials helped organize a free family history course for students at Prairie View A&M University in Texas. As part of the class, students learned about indexing using the Freedmen's Bureau records.
In Oklahoma, two pastors challenged each other's congregation to an "index-off" contest, according to a FamilySearch blog post in December.
Reed was recently invited to give a distinguished lecture at the Pepperdine University Graduate School of Education and Psychology, where faculty, staff, students and members of the community committed to take part in the Freedmen's Bureau project because it fulfilled the school's mission of having purpose, giving service and being a leader, Reed said.
Reed also spearheaded an "Index-a-thon" party at RootsTech that ended with the completion of more than 1,800 batches, double his goal of 900 batches in 90 minutes.
"This is something that resonates with a lot of people," Reed said. "To be able to provide service in the form of digitizing these records and make them available for more people to discover their families is extremely rewarding."
FamilySearch has targeted this Juneteenth — one year to the day since the project's launch — as the goal date by which to finish the project, Reed said, in time to share the records with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., which opens in late September.
Hollis Gentry, genealogy specialist at NMAAHC, said the Freedmen's Bureau records will become a "significant foundational digital collection" for the new museum and a great benefit to all genealogists.
"The collection will help us explore what it meant to be an American prior to and following the Civil War, and examine how other cultures may have influenced or been influenced by African-American culture during that time," Hollis said. "The greatest power that we anticipate finding in these records are the details that they provide about our forebears, details which will enable us to construct new stories or confirm existing oral traditions about our ancestors. The records provide a critical link between the slavery and post-emancipation eras, between the 1860s and 1880s, and can help fill in gaps in existing histories."
Until then, FamilySearch is still seeking volunteers to index records. Visit DiscoverFreedmen.org for more information.
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