Launches New Freedmen’s Bureau Records To Help Black Americans Better Trace Their Roots

Last year’s social uprising encouraged conversations about this country’s history of racism, systemic and systematic oppression of Black people in America with many now wanting to know more about their lineage. Now, thanks to it is easier than ever for BIPOC to discover where they came from. 

Today, Ancestry® announced the unveiling of the world’s largest digitized and searchable collection of Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records. This means that more than 3.5 million records can help descendants of previously enslaved people in the U.S. learn more about their families. Ancestry® says the collection can enable meaningful family history breakthroughs because it is likely the first time newly freed African Americans would appear in records after Emancipation in 1863, as many enslaved people were previously excluded from standard census and federal documents.

“Free access to this collection will enable meaningful Black family history discoveries for generations to come,” says Nicka Sewell-Smith, Professional Genealogist. “Finding your ancestors’ names and stories on Ancestry is possible and unearthing them can shine a light that helps guide us going forward. Learning about the resiliency of those who came before us and the obstacles they overcame inspires us to know we can do the same.” 

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The Freedmen’s Bureau was created near the end of the American Civil War to help formerly enslaved people transition from slavery to citizenship by providing food, housing, education and medical care. It supported more than 4 million people, which also included some impoverished white people and veterans of the U.S. Colored Troops. Bureau records include labor contracts, rations, apprenticeships, letters, marriages and more. Freedman’s Bank records, which are also part of the digitized collection, include family members’ names, thousands of signature cards, and details about the individual depositors. 

Despite its significance, awareness of the Freedmen’s Bureau is very low. According to a Harris Poll survey by Ancestry, a staggering 72% of Americans surveyed have never heard of the Freedmen’s Bureau. However, nearly all of those familiar with the Freedmen’s Bureau (90%) believe it was a turning point in American history and that it still impacts Americans’ lives today, and 87% of Americans surveyed agree that it is important for the public to have access to historical records–like those saved by the Freedmen’s Bureau–in order for African Americans to be able to trace their family roots. 

To better understand the African American experience during this chapter in history, Ancestry turned to experts, academics and authors like Dr. Karcheik Sims-Alvarado, Assistant Professor, Africana Studies at Morehouse College, who focuses on the history of the Reconstruction Era. 

“Freedmen’s Bureau records paint a picture of who was migrating to major cities, what type of people they were, and their economic aspirations,” said Dr. Sims-Alvarado. “This narrative is largely untold in Reconstruction Era history, as those writing the history did not consider the perspectives of how Black people experienced and defined freedom. Increasing awareness of and access to this history is a key step toward a new understanding of this complex American history.”