It is often very difficult for Black Americans to trace their history because of the disruptions of slavery, being sold downriver, etc.,” she said. “I am often haunted by something I read in one of the narratives of the formerly enslaved who remembered Black people just wandering the roads and trails after the Civil War looking for long-lost kin. This post-war era search for connection is now being eased by Freedmen’s Bureau, as enriched by the genealogy site, Ancestry.com
After more than 20 years researching her family’s origin in America, Nicka Sewell-Smith found the name of an uncle who had filed a complaint about having his horse stolen. Another notation said he had shopped for bacon, a broom, and tobacco in “Short’s Place” in Louisiana about seven months before the 13th Amendment was passed in 1865. Nicka’s discovery was made possible through the Freedmen’s Bureau.
The Freedmen’s Bureau is a federal agency for formerly enslaved Black people created near the end of America’s Civil War in 1865. Its goal was to assist the newly freed in their transition out of slavery by negotiating labor contracts, legalizing marriages, and locating lost relatives, among other things, documenting it all. It also provided food, housing, education, and medical care to more than 4 million people, including poor whites and veterans displaced by war.
With her standard supply of popcorn and a beverage at her reach, Sewell-Smith clicked on and learned that Hugh Short was a lawyer and owner of enslaved Black people. Then she came upon Short’s will, which listed the names of her great-great-great-grandparents near the bottom of the document, according to a report by NBC news.
“I could not turn from the page for an hour,” she said. “I had resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to find them. So, I called my cousin who had been searching also for 20 years and I said, ‘Guess what? We didn’t come here on a spaceship from Cameroon and land in North Louisiana.’”
However, the genealogy site Ancestry.com has unveiled a Black family lineage game-changer — 3.5 million records of previously enslaved Black people, available for free.
It is believed to be the world’s largest digitized and searchable collection of Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank archives. The collection has Black genealogists and habitual researchers thrilled because the descendants of the enslaved in America can learn more about their families in a far easier way.
Furthermore, the collection is significant because it is most likely the first time newly freed African Americans appear in records after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, as many enslaved people were previously excluded from standard census and federal documents.
Dennis Richmond Jr., 26, of Yonkers, New York, found it incredible that when he was 13, the iconic miniseries “Roots” moved him the way it did. He watched it with his father, who “each and every Sunday” would share his family’s lineage with his young son. As Richmond got older, the Freedmen’s Bureau became his daily place of interest.
“I come from two unique Black families,” he said. “My father’s family was quasi-free Blacks, so they were not slaves. These were Black people who were reading and writing, or buying and selling land or sending their children to school.”
“On my mother’s side of the family, from South Carolina, I found big sprawling plantations and fields and bills of sale, and families who are buying Africans off slave ships from Ghana and Mali and Senegal. I found out about the Freedmen’s Bureau, through my mother’s ancestors, because those were the ancestors who were enslaved during the Civil War.”