Black Americans will be able to trace their family roots further back than ever before—to the slavery era and, in some cases, to the countries of origin from which their ancestors were stolen—with the development of a new free online service that is digitizing old federal records for the first time, The Guardian reports.
According to the report, the handwritten documents, which contain information about newly freed slaves, were put together just before the Civil War. The documents come from the Freedmen's Bureau, an administrative body that was created in 1865 to help the newly freed slaves transition into citizenship. Previously, The Guardian notes, the slaves were legally viewed as property and names were often not recorded, even on the slave owners' records.
These documents will soon be available for easy searching on the new website discoverfreedmen.org. The Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, the California African American Museum and FamilySearch are all collaborating on the effort.
FamilySearch, an online genealogy organization run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, made the announcement with some project partners in Los Angeles last Friday for the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth.
Black Americans attempting to find their family roots often hit a roadblock in any search going back beyond 1870, the year black people were included in the census for the first time. But soon, thanks to the digitization of more than 1.5 million handwritten documents, there will be more than 4 million names readily accessible online for further tracing.
According to The Guardian, the records are expected to be fully uploaded by late 2016, hopefully coinciding with the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
"The records serve as a bridge to slavery and freedom. You can look at some of the original documents that were created at the time when these people were living. They are the earliest records detailing people who were formerly enslaved. We get a sense of their voice, their dreams," Smithsonian genealogy specialist Hollis Gentry told The Guardian.
"I predict we’ll see millions of living people find living relatives they never knew existed. That will be a tremendous blessing and a wonderful, healing experience," he added.
Read more at The Guardian.