For many African Americans you can dig up your ancestry for the last 150 years or so with a bit of diligence and hard work. The brick wall many meet is prior to the end of slavery after the Civil War.
Some, can go back to the initial 1790 census, but before that time, things get incredibly difficult to sort out.
Making that search even more difficult, was the Civil War itself, where Union Troops burned a number of local Courthouses in the South, destroying both property and civil records.
Those records which survived were copied onto microfilm, but until now, were never transcribed onto electronic media to make them searchable by computer.
The end of slavery meant a kind of beginning for the family histories of many African-Americans: for the first time, the enslaved people’s identities and family connections became part of a public record. And the huge task of recording that data fell to the federal Freedmen’s Bureau.
After collecting dust in government warehouses since the late 1800s, the Virginia portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau records is now available electronically to the public. The online database that lists marriages, birth certificates, contracts and even some personal narratives will offer a trove of detail to historians and to the descendants of slaves, who have struggled to piece together family histories obscured by the institution of slavery.
In celebrating the milestone, Gov. Tim Kaine said on Thursday: “What we have done is helped preserve the legacy” of “those freedmen who at the end of the Civil War stepped out of slavery and into freedom.” The governor spoke outside the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, which recruited hundreds of volunteers to transfer the records from microfilm and digitize them.
The project, which is the first in the nation, will be repeated throughout the South, organizers said. They said they also hoped to collect data from libraries, churches and courts, all of which are potential sources of African-American history dating to the nation’s founding. No public dollars are committed to that effort, but the federal Census Bureau will assist.
The Virginia records include vital statistics for 931,268 people and are accessible through FamilySearch, a Web site maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Organizers partnered with the church, which has the world’s largest collection of family history archives in Salt Lake City, because of its expertise in collecting and digitizing such materials.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was created by the government after the Civil War in an effort to ease four million former slaves into society.
Ahmad S. Corbitt, a spokesman for the Mormon church, said there was a hunger among black Americans to learn more about their heritage.
“There is a spiritual sense of connection to our ancestors, naturally,” Mr. Corbitt said. “There is a sense of belonging, knowing the past and knowing your ancestors.”
That pursuit of connection sent the Virginia secretary of administration, Viola O. Baskerville, on a 25-year quest to learn her family history.
Ms. Baskerville, who is black, made a startling discovery: Her great-great-great grandfather was owned by Carter Braxton, a Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence.
“I cried,” Ms. Baskerville said of the discovery. “It was an ancestor who had not even been talked about.”
Ms. Baskerville’s quest required her to search through court records, talk to family members and work with a professional family historian.
Today, with the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau records digitized, “All I would have to do is put in a reference — a name, a place, a date — any clue that I came upon,” she said.
The discovery “gives me a sense of identity, history, personhood,” she said. “It’s critical to understanding who you are and valuing yourself as a person.”
Discussions are under way to permanently store the records at the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution.