In 1865 Abraham Lincoln established the Freedman’s Bureau to assist formerly enslaved Black people and poor white people. The Bureau was defunded, understaffed, and even weaponized by his successor, Andrew Johnson, who was later impeached.
The Bureau built hospitals, schools, and established the Historically Black College and University (HBCU) system. According to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the Bureau also created a system of records that contains “the names of hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved individuals and white refugees.” These digitized records are being transcribed by more than 25,000😮 volunteers! So far, the database contains the names of almost 1.8 million people (men, women, and children)!
This joint project is led by the Smithsonian, the National Archives, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Read more about the project and its history here.
If you want to dive straight into your research, click here.
The opportunity this database provides to find our enslaved ancestors is beyond incredible, and having a digital, searchable library makes it accessible to anyone with internet access.
This type of research and access is one way to heal the racial divide. Being able to trace your genealogy is one privilege most white people have that many African-Americans don’t because the records simply aren’t there. We were often listed in transactions as male or female, by our age, and by our color and other physical descriptions, but with no name.
Enslavers regularly broke up families and people from the same tribe to reduce the ability of enslaved Africans to communicate. If nobody spoke the same language, they couldn’t plan escape or send messages. If brothers and sisters, mothers, fathers, and children were separated, then each person was left without a support system as well as unable to communicate with the new group of people they were suddenly housed with.
When I talk about how racism is a system that was purposely created, these are the kinds of things I’m talking about. Decisions like these, to separate families and people who spoke the same language, are conscious choices meant to break spirits and dehumanize people. Decisions like these were made long before chattel slavery was created. Every decision that led up to and continued the practice was a choice made on purpose by someone in power who decided that their need for power and wealth was more important than another human beings life.
Those decisions shaped this country, and the effects are so ingrained in how this country defines itself that when we question racism, or kneel during the anthem, or protest racial injustice, the people standing up for social justice are called unpatriotic. This is how much we, as individuals, have been brainwashed. If you protest blatant injustice, you’re wrong. It’s time for everyone to wake up and shed our cognitive dissonance. Let’s live in the open, free, where the facts match the story we tell ourselves. We can’t change what happened in the past. We aren’t responsible for what our ancestors did. But we are responsible for our own actions, whether we right the wrongs that exist because of our ancestors’ decisions or whether we continue to benefit from those decisions despite the continued harm to other people. If we’re going to heal as a nation, it’s time we get honest, learn the truth, and do something. Not doing so is willful blindness, and there’s no excuse or justification for it.
The way I teach is not to blame and shame. But I do require honesty and integrity. If we’re going to heal and have a better future, we have to be honest about our past and our present. #fiercelove requires no less.