Bringing Their Lives To Light
Virginia's Online Records Help Blacks ID Ancestors

By Catherine Cheney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 23, 2009

Record Group 105.2 of the Virginia Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands records lists marriage certificates from 1861 to 1869 in Gloucester County.

"Thomas Lemon, 25, single, m. Amanda Easton, 22, single. Groom's parents: Que and Fanny Lemon. Bride's parents: William and Sarah Easton. Both born in Gloucester County, both live in Gloucester Co. 2 children, both his. Groom's occupation: Farm hand."

Such documents provide vital information that helps African Americans identify their ancestors.

Viola Baskerville, 57, secretary of administration for Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, was a volunteer in the Virginia Freedmen Extracting and Indexing Project. She said such records "are not just dates, places and names, but really a three-dimensional picture of these individuals' histories, their lives, what they went through and stories from eyewitnesses who were there at the time."

Baskerville searched for information on her great-great-great-grandfather for 25 years.

"And when I saw him in a document that gave him name, place, spouse, when he got married, who his papa was, how old he was and when he got married, I cried," she said.

Kaine (D) announced in October 2006 that Virginia would be the first to index and digitize Freedmen's Bureau records, which provide the earliest documented information on African Americans.

The federal government established the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865 to help African Americans in their transition from slavery to freedom. On July 9, Kaine announced that the records are online and available to the public.

"What we have done is helped preserve the legacy of those nearly 4 million freedmen who at the end of the Civil War stepped out of slavery and into freedom," Kaine said.

The records, which include marriage, education, work and health documents, identify individuals whose histories had been lost to slavery.

As they work their way back from 1930 to their earliest documented ancestors, black genealogists hit a major barrier at 1870. Before that year, the U.S. Census did not list slaves by name. Because slaves adopted the surnames of their owners, it is difficult for genealogists to bridge the gap between emancipation and the era of slavery.

Access to online, digitized versions of the Freedmen's Bureau records benefits people such as Char Bah, 52, of Stafford, who works to identify the descendants of former slaves and freed people buried at Freedmen's Cemetery in Alexandria.

"Before, I would have to go all over the state, to county offices and libraries and to Richmond and to the National Archives, to see these records on microfilm," Bah said. "And right now with the digitized materials, I can do this work from home."

The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia recruited hundreds of volunteers to sort through microfilm copies of Virginia Freedman records. The documents were then indexed and converted to a digital format.

They are accessible at http://familysearch.org, a Web site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a partner in the project. Other partners include the Genealogical Society of Utah and the African American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Selma Stewart, 62, of Newport News called it a joy to volunteer in the effort.

"It felt like I was bringing these people to light, so that they are not lost," she said.

Stewart said she hopes other states in the South will follow Virginia's example.

"Until they do it to Alabama and Mississippi, people will have to go through the microfilm and read every doggone page!" she said.

Maureen Elgersman Lee, executive director of the Black History Museum, said the marriage records volunteers found and indexed were particularly significant.

They "are a testament of marriage among African Americans during slavery, which helps with the misconception that African Americans did not enter into marriage and familial relationships during slavery," Lee said.

The Black History Museum is launching a project to locate marriage records from the Freedmen's Bureau from former slave states in the South.

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