By Deborah Rowe
For The Star
A Professor of English and Humanities at Houston Community College is helping African Americans use genealogy to Index records and conduct former slave ancestral research to reunite them with their Civil War-era ancestors.
Missouri City resident Dr. Helen Graham was appointed to oversee The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, more commonly known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.
“It was created by congress near the end of the American Civil War to help freedmen (freed slaves) in 15 states and the District of Columbia transition into their new lives as American citizens,” she said.
According to Graham, the Bureau did this by providing a plethora of services. Among other things, the Bureau opened Freedmen schools to educate the illiterate for whom education was critical for both the freedmen and the government. It also managed hospitals and provided medical care. It provided legal assistance to help negotiate labor contracts, resolve complaints, and provide assistance with military pension records. It rationed food and housing, and opened banks to allow laborers to deposit their earnings.
“In the process of providing these services, the Freedmen’s Bureau gathered priceless, handwritten, personal information on nearly four million former slaves. These records have been stored in the National Archives since 1872,” Graham explained. “FamilySearch, the largest genealogical organization in the world, acquired digital copies of these records.”
This project entails mining each document for data, extracting pertinent information from these documents, and typing the information into an online searchable database. This process is known as indexing. Once the data is indexed, anyone, anywhere in the world, with Internet access can search these records for free, Graham said.
“My roles as the Freedmen’s Bureau Indexing Project Specialist in the Houston area is to bring this project to light, to present information about this project, to provide indexing training, and to help provide a venue for volunteers to come together to index these records” she said.
Project partners are FamilySearch, the National Archives and Records Administration, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the California African-American Museum.
The project started in June 2015 and is projected to be complete by June.
“This deadline is urgent. The Smithsonian purchased the last available space on the Washington Mall and they have erected a National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Graham explained. “The museum’s grand opening will be this fall and these records will be on permanent display at the museum. In addition, the Smithsonian will have kiosks set up in the museum for patrons to search online for their Civil War-era ancestors.
Graham explained that they are working with various organizations, including local libraries, to offer Freedmen Bureau indexing classes for those interested in learning more.
For more information, email HoustonFBIP@gmail.com.