The transcription of all Freedmen’s Bureau records will allow anyone with access to the internet discover more about our country’s history.
For millions of Americans, genealogical and scholarly research on African American people who lived before the 20th century has been exceedingly difficult. Family trees were often spotty and historians had to navigate a complex path through national archives.
Now, that’s changing.
Over the past several years, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) has been spearheading the crowd-sourced transcription of a powerful resource for better understanding the lives of people in the Reconstruction-era South: the Freedmen’s Bureau records. With the help of people like you volunteering from home, we are unlocking a treasure trove of names and stories of formerly enslaved individuals and Southern white refugees.
Once transcribed, the full text of each Freedmen’s Bureau document will be electronically searchable so that family historians, genealogists, students, scholars, and anyone with access to the internet can quickly and easily locate information in ways that were previously unavailable.
What was the Freedmen’s Bureau?
The United States Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands — commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau — was created by Congress in 1865 to assist in the political and social reconstruction of post-war Southern states and to help formerly enslaved people make the transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship. Unique glimpses into the lives of newly freed individuals are documented in the more than 1.5 million images of records created and collected by the Freedmen’s Bureau.
How you can help uncover history
Amazingly, 90,000 pages of Freedmen’s Bureau record images have already been transcribed by more than 9,000 individuals, making it the largest crowdsourcing initiative ever sponsored by the Smithsonian.
But there’s still work to be done! The transcription of each document brings us one step closer to reclaiming the past. You can help transcribe the Freedmen’s Bureau records from home via the online Smithsonian Transcription Center.
Why this matters — to everyone
Hollis Gentry, a Smithsonian Libraries genealogy specialist at NMAAHC, describes the unifying power of the Freedmen’s Bureau records and the lessons in resiliency they offer:
“When you start going back in the records you find that every family has suffered all kinds of triumphs and tragedies, births and deaths . . . what makes it fascinating is how each group relates to those challenges and triumphs, how they preserve it, what they do with that information, and some of the relationships that are formed.”
The Smithsonian Transcription Center and the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project demonstrate the incredible ability of the Smithsonian’s digital resources to engage and sustain learners of all ages during this unique moment in history.
From all of us at the Museum, stay safe and healthy!
Images, top to bottom: NMAAHC Community Curation event in Denver; photo by Leah L. Jones / NMAAHC. Archival photo (enhanced detail) of a Freedmen’s School at James’s Plantation; courtesy LEARN NC, University of North Carolina. Freedmen’s Bureau Project workshop sponsored by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; photo courtesy of Thom Reed of FamilySearch. NMAAHC transcription event with students; photo by Leah L. Jones / NMAAHC.