News

The Price of the Past: Preserving the Freedmen's Bureau Papers

Kate Masur, October 2000

Librarian Jamie Murray is looking for a way to raise $910 so the Brazoria County Historical Museum in Angleton, Texas, can own a microfilm copy of the local Freedmen's Bureau records. Representative Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) has asked Congress to appropriate $1.5 million so the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) can process and microfilm the state Freedmen's Bureau records for all 15 states (and the District of Columbia) where the bureau operated.

Their budgets are quite different, but their intentions are similar—to preserve the papers of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands and make them available as widely as possible.

Congress established the Freedmen's Bureau after the Civil War to aid in the transition from slavery to free labor throughout the former slaveholding states. The military personnel who managed the agency were in daily contact with former slaves and former owners, and the documents they produced are filled with extraordinary biographical information about the freedpeople—where they lived and worked, whom they married, how many children they had, and even what they ate.

The records provide a unique portrait of "all matters concerning African Americans' transition from slavery to freedom," said NARA archivist Reginald Washington.

These voluminous records, which total over 1,100 cubic feet and are housed at the National Archives, have been very useful for historians. But archivists, librarians, and now members of Congress are taking new steps to make them available to the public and mine them for information on African American family history and local history—all while working to protect them from degradation so that future researchers can also use them.

"More and more people are conscious of wanting to find out who they are and where they came from," said Washington, a specialist in African American genealogical research. He said interest in African American genealogy is "building on itself" as teachers assign family history projects to students and people use the Internet to make connections with other family history buffs and to find primary sources. As the general public shows increasing interest in African American genealogy, institutions respond by developing their collections to serve their patrons.

Genealogical research "can be addictive," Washington said, describing the fervor with which some people seek information about their ancestors. "Once you find something, then you're hooked . . . If you find great-grandma on the census when she was four years old, it just brings something to you." After discovering the childhood of someone they knew as "great-grandma," family historians dash off in search of more connections, traveling even further back in time. Genealogists represent 85 percent of the researchers who use NARA facilities nationwide.

Millender-McDonald, who has done extensive research on her own family, is one of a number of African American members of Congress using their public offices to promote African American history as a going concern. John Conyers (D-Mich.) has led an ongoing discussion of reparations for slavery, and Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) has pressed for more coverage of slavery at Civil War battlefield parks. Most recently, John Lewis (D-Ga.) and J. C. Watts (R-Okla.) cosponsored a bill to investigate the contributions of slaves to the construction of such national monuments as the White House and the Capitol building.

Millender-McDonald has been pushing Congress to get involved preserving and disseminating the Freedmen's Bureau papers, focusing her energy thus far on members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). Spokesperson Pearl-Alice Marsh said that among CBC members, discussion of the Freedmen's Bureau papers and genealogy had been "important and passionate for everyone on a personal level."

James Cusick, curator of Florida history at the University of Florida special collections library, represents another constituency for the Freedmen's Bureau papers. He was thinking mostly about academic research when he asked the National Archives to help him spend grant money earmarked for enhancing his library's holdings in Civil War-era African American history. Finding a microfilm edition of the records of Florida colored troops too expensive, he decided instead to purchase a film of the Florida Freedmen's Bureau papers.

Florida was unlike any other Freedmen's Bureau state, however, in that none of the records had been filmed. Seeing their shared interest in filming the Florida papers, Cusick and NARA struck a deal: volunteers at the National Archives would prepare the records for filming and, for just under $10,000, the University of Florida would purchase two microfilm copies of the state Freedmen's Bureau records.

The Freedmen's Bureau papers film was a substantial investment for Cusick, more than his average annual budget. He is convinced it will be money well spent. "I'm expecting it to be a very heavily used collection," he said, adding that the films would be of interest to students and historians of Reconstruction, African American history, and regional history. Although the library cannot purchase the original Florida Freedmen's Bureau papers, Cusick has no problem investing in copies. "We try to get things that will produce books and articles," he said, adding that rare original materials might make good display pieces, but are not of great use to historians.

Cusick's library will make its extra copy of the film available for loan to other libraries.

In an effort to make the Freedmen's Bureau papers more accessible to genealogists, NARA archivists decided to develop a database of freedpeople's names mentioned in the Florida records as they prepared the records for filming. Cusick would receive the database at no extra charge. Meanwhile, the archivists would learn about the financial costs and intellectual and technological challenges of indexing the Freedmen's Bureau papers.

Alphabetical indexes are crucial for any genealogical research, but they are especially important for genealogists hoping to use the Freedmen's Bureau papers. The U.S. census, usually a critical tool for genealogists, is a poor source for descendants of slaves, whose ancestors were first enumerated in 1870. In contrast, the Freedmen's Bureau papers contain matchless information about freedpeople before that year.

Yet the 19th-century army officials who created the Freedmen's Bureau records, writing back and forth about their daily duties, did not have African American genealogists in mind when they entered their letters in record books. It is extremely difficult to find particular ex-slaves in the papers, except in the rare instances when bureau administrators listed freedpeople's names in alphabetical order. For example, when the bureau issued marriage licenses to freedpeople, it recorded them chronologically. These records could be rich sources for family history, but without name indexes, the quest for an individual person is vast and painstaking.

The interests of librarians, genealogists, and local historians converged when Millender-McDonald requested a special appropriation of $1.5 million, which would cover preparing and filming all the state Freedmen's Bureau papers. If that project is approved, the next step would be funding to create name indexes for all the states' papers and to put the indexes online. In the meantime, Millender-McDonald is pursuing the issue within the CBC by hosting forums on federal records and genealogical research; she and Rep. J. C. Watts brought the issue before the entire Congress by sponsoring a bill that recognizes the historical significance of the Freedmen's Bureau records and the importance of preserving and indexing them.

But congressional funding for records preservation is not a panacea. In fact, NARA would face challenges in processing and filming the records were the new funds approved. NARA is beginning a major renovation of its Washington, D.C., facility, and its space and staff time are at a premium.

With that in mind, Reginald Washington's large-scale vision of preserving and indexing the Freedmen's Bureau papers relies on goodwill and interinstitutional cooperation. He imagines that volunteers at state-based institutions could create indexes once records have been filmed by NARA, and he sees NARA's Civil War Conservation Corps as real-life evidence that this could work. The corps, which is now processing the Florida papers, was established six years ago to process the service records of the United States Colored Troops. Its members have donated about $175,000 in staff time each year, and over half of the 51 current volunteers have been with the corps since the beginning. The success of this group makes archivists optimistic about the prospect of enlisting volunteers for future filming and indexing projects in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere.

In response to growing interest in African American family history, historical societies and libraries are building their collections by buying microfilmed records, often of federal government agencies such as the Freedmen's Bureau. These institutions invite Reginald Washington to lead workshops in African American genealogy for archivists and the general public. "It keeps me busy," he said, citing recent trips to Cleveland, Atlanta, St. Louis, and to Virginia and Wisconsin.

Local collections are sometimes deficient for historical reasons. According to Cusick, Florida archivists and librarians often look to other places for primary source materials on their state, since Florida historical collections only began in the 1940s and 1950s. Likewise, in Angleton, Texas, prominent Anglo families donated their papers to the Brazoria County Historical Museum early on, but the museum continues to lack primary sources on African Americans. "We hardly have anything on black families," librarian Jamie Murray said. The Freedmen's Bureau papers "represent a time in history where we really don't have a lot of information."

While portions of the Freedmen's Bureau papers from each state (except Florida) have already been microfilmed, the plans envisioned by Washington and Millender-McDonald would put all the records on film, thereby allowing local libraries and archives to own complete copies of their state's or region's papers, as the University of Florida soon will. Such distribution of microfilmed records fits one of NARA's primary goals, said Cynthia Fox, chief of Old Military and Civil Records at NARA. "Any time we can make records available outside Washington, D.C., we've done a service to everyone."

—Kate Masur is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Michigan and is on the staff of the AHA.