Data Helps Descendants of Slaves Reclaim History

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The end of slavery meant a kind of beginning for the family histories of many African-Americans: 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.

After 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.

In celebrating the milestone, Gov. Tim Kaine said on Thursday: “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.” The governor 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.

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