African American News and Genealogy

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Post-Civil War archives on ex-slaves open to all

Sunday, January 15, 2006

By Jacqueline Trescott, The Washington Post WASHINGTON -- In the late 1860s James Kelley, a man living in Chicot County, Ark., wrote to the Freedmen's Bureau asking for help in finding his children. Like thousands of black families, they had been separated during the Civil War. The bureau found them on a plantation near Waco, Texas. The record of the Kelley family reunion and those of thousands of others can now be examined by scholars, amateur historians and descendants in the records of the Freedmen's Bureau at the National Archives and Records Administration. Those papers -- which had not been available for widespread study -- can be seen on microfilm by the public thanks to a five-year effort to preserve the bureau's original records, the National Archives announced Friday. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, known as the Freedmen's Bureau, was established by the federal government in March 1865 as the Civil War was coming to a close, to help the almost 4 million former slaves begin their new lives. Its mandate was sprawling, including providing food, clothing and health care to former slaves, negotiating employment contracts and establishing schools. The agency was formally disbanded in June 1872. Its successes and failures have been debated ever since. Some saw it as a noble effort to help newly freed blacks. Others saw it as corrupt and flawed. The records are "a unique opportunity to gain insight into the black experience before and after the Civil War" and the federal government's role in that transition, said Reginald Washington, an African American genealogy specialist at the Archives. The project was undertaken by a multidisciplinary team within the Archives. Congress provided $3 million. Interest in all aspects of the Civil War continues, but the bureau's records have been accessible only to scholars and a few others since the Archives received them in the 1940s. The papers, gathered from dozens of local offices of the bureau, were disorganized. And some were just too fragile to handle.


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