- The Washington Times - Friday, July 10, 2009

RICHMOND | The end of slavery meant a kind of beginning for the family histories of many blacks - For the first time, the enslaved people’s identities and family connections became part of a public record. And the huge task of recording that data fell to the federal Freedmen’s Bureau.

Collecting dust in government warehouses since the late 1800s, the Virginia portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau records is now available electronically to the public. The online database that lists marriages, birth certificates, contracts and even some personal narratives will offer a trove of detail to historians and to the descendants of slaves, who have struggled to piece together family histories obscured by the institution of slavery.

“What we have done is helped preserve the legacy of those … freedmen who at the end of the Civil War stepped out of slavery and into freedom,” Gov. Tim Kaine said Thursday to celebrate the milestone. He spoke outside the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia, which recruited hundreds of volunteers to transfer the records from microfilm and digitize them.

The first-in-the-nation project will be repeated throughout the South, organizers said. They also hope to collect data from libraries, churches and courts, all of which are potential sources of black history dating to the nation’s founding. No public dollars are committed to that effort, but the U.S. Census Bureau will assist.

The Virginia records include vital statistics for 931,268 individuals and are accessible through FamilySearch, a Web site maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Organizers partnered with the church, which has the world’s largest collection of family history archives in Salt Lake City, because of its expertise in collecting and digitizing such materials.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was created by the government after the Civil War in an attempt to ease 4 million former slaves into society.

Part of that job meant establishing records for blacks who, while in slavery, were counted in the U.S. Census at their master’s whim, or might have entered just a check mark or their first name during the once-a-decade count.

Ahmad S. Corbitt, a spokesman for the Mormon Church, said there is a hunger among black Americans to learn more about their heritage.

“There is a spiritual sense of connection to our ancestors, naturally,” he said. “There is a sense of belonging, knowing the past and knowing your ancestors.”

That pursuit of connection sent Virginia Secretary of Administration Viola Baskerville on a 25-year quest to learn her family history.

She made a startling discovery: Her great-great-great grandfather was owned by Carter Braxton, a Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence.

“I cried,” Ms. Baskerville said of the discovery. “It was an ancestor who had not even been talked about.”

Ms. Baskerville’s quest required the former member of the Virginia House of Delegates to search through court records, talk to family members and work with a professional family historian.

Today, with the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau records digitized, “All I would have to do is put in a reference - a name, a place, a date - any clue that I came upon,” she said.

The discovery, she said, “gives me a sense of identity, history, personhood. It’s critical to understanding who you are and valuing yourself as a person.”

Discussions are under way to permanently store the records at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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