On June 19, 2015, the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth (when the Emancipation Proclamation was finally enforced in Texas), a major media event took place in Los Angeles to announce that all records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands (commonly called the Freedmen’s Bureau) have been digitized and placed online at FamilySearch.org. The event also was used as a platform to encourage participation in FamilySearch’s indexing (transcription) of the records to create a searchable database, which will make the records far more accessible than they have been in the past. The digitization project was a joint effort of FamilySearch, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society, and the California African American Museum.
The records are extremely important in black family history research because they are the contemporary primary source that indicates the last slave owner of a formerly enslaved individual. In many of the records created by the Freedmen’s Bureau, one of the questions asked was “What was the name of your last owner?” That owner’s name is critical to finding more information about the individual prior to Emancipation.
The difficulties with using the Freedmen’s Bureau records to date have been numerous. Very, very few of the records had indices. Though the complete collection is available on microfilm at every branch of the National Archives, the quality of many of the records was poor when they were microfilmed, and searching on microfilm was tedious and headache-inducing. And that was after you figured out in which part of the collection you should start your search, an adventure in and of itself. Some of the records had been digitized previously — some were on Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org, and the Internet Archive — but no one site had all of them, and not all of them were searchable.
I’m on staff at the Oakland FamilySearch Library. The people putting together the June 19 event actually wanted our library to be part of that event, but our director thought we needed a little more lead time to make sure we would be prepared. Well, we’ve gotten organized, and now we’re going to have a media event.
On Thursday, July 16, 10:00 a.m.–12:00 noon, the Oakland FamilySearch Library, 4766 Lincoln Avenue, Oakland, California, will host the Northern California event to celebrate the completion of the digitization of the Freedmen’s Bureau records on FamilySearch.org. All members of the genealogical community are welcome to attend the event.
In addition to the celebration event, the Oakland FamilySearch Library (OFSL) has scheduled five sessions to explain how to transcribe the digitized records to create searchable databases and to sign up volunteers to help with the transcription project. This is the same class being offered five times; you only need to attend one. Genealogists in particular are being encouraged to join in transcribing the records, though everyone can help. You will have choices about the records you work on, and maybe you will discover your own ancestors in the process! You will also be helping make it easier for other researchers to find their lost family members.
The scheduled sessions are:
Thursday, July 16, 11:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m. (same day as the celebration event)
Friday, July 17, 2:30–3:30 p.m.
Saturday, July 18, 10:00–11:00 a.m.
Wednesday, July 22, 7:00–8:00 p.m.
Tuesday, July 28, 7:00–8:00 p.m.
All sessions will be taught by Kim Miller, an OFSL staff member.
Please help make these records searchable for everyone. I cannot overstate the importance of the records for helping identify enslaved ancestors’ former owners, a key piece of information needed to be able to trace those ancestors prior to Emancipation. Tony Burroughs, the well known black genealogist and author of Black Roots, mentioned in a recent keynote presentation that in all the research he has done, only about 15% of emancipated slaves took their former owners’ last names. That means that 85% of us need the information that can be found in Freedmen’s Bureau records.
You don’t have to wait for the library event to help; you can actually start transcribing records today if you want to. Information about the indexing project and how to contribute is available at
The purpose of the July 16 event is to help publicize the importance of the records and the effort to transcribe the records and create the index. The transcription work itself is an ongoing effort.
If you want to watch a recording of the June 19 event, it is available on the Freedmen’s Bureau Project Web site.
In addition to all the regular media coverage of the digitization and transcription projects, Judy Russell, the Legal Genealogist, explained how the records are important to everyone doing Southern research, not just those with formerly enslaved ancestors. Danica Southwick wrote a great article about the project for the Jackson Sun prior to the media launch. And Dear Myrtle has issued a challenge to genealogists everywhere to spend half an hour every week helping with the project.
As an individual member of the California State Genealogical Alliance, I am asking all genealogists to participate in this effort to transcribe the complete collection of Freedmen’s Bureau records. The impact on research will be enormous.
(This article first appeared on the Ancestral Discoveries blog on June 30, 2015.)