In March 1865, The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Land - commonly referred to as The Freedmen’s Bureau - was established. The end of the American Civil War in this same year had brought about the emancipation of nearly four million slaves. However, with this came huge problems.
These ‘freed men’ had an enormous adjustment to deal with and new lives to build, many in places side by side with their former owners. The Freedmen’s Bureau brought a sense of order to the chaos and aimed to help this transition. It provided food and healthcare, helped citizens procure work permits, started schools and for the first time in American history, recorded names of these individuals and asked questions about their background.
Now, The Freedmen’s Bureau Project aims to digitise these documents so that they are available online to the public. Established by a partnership of groups – Family Search International, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society (AAHGS), and the California African-American Museum - the project is recruiting thousands of volunteers to add over 1.5 million documents to the index.
Although it wasn’t possible to speak with anyone from the project, I sat down with historian and author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering During the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Downs. His book, published in January 2015, documents the pain and suffering of the newly freed men, women and children. Although this time is largely seen as one of the great turning points in American history, Downs talks of how those who had fled slavery were subsequently faced with disease, death, sickness and suffering. He calls upon research from the records of the Medical Division of the Freedmen’s Bureau in his book in order to recover these untold stories.
So how successful was the Bureau for documenting the lives of African-Americans freed men and women? He tells me: “It is difficult to determine its efficacy. For some freed-people, the arrival of Northern doctors, the establishment of hospitals and the distribution of medical relief certainly improved their lives and provided them with access to basic necessities that they were lacking during the war and its aftermath. But the Bureau’s tentacles did not reach all parts of the post-war South; many newly freed-people did not live within proximity to a Bureau hospital or come in contact with a Bureau doctor. The Bureau established an astounding 40 hospitals in the South, employed over 120 physicians and provided relief to over one million people, but even this unprecedented, magnanimous aid did not reach all of the four million people freed at the end of the Civil War.”
In Sick from Freedom, Downs addresses truths that are largely ignored by historians who continue to focus on the suffering and deaths of white soldiers in the Civil War. He tells of freed slaves begging their Northern allies for help whilst a plague of smallpox rampaged through their communities, of mothers forced by their liberators to abandon dead children to be eaten by vermin. It is a bid to make such stories and suffering memorable and therefore highlight the huge health crisis of the liberated slaves.
I asked if he thought that the digitisation of these documents will force more historians to readdress this. Downs explains: “In many ways, using the medical records requires piecing together various clues and trying to make sense of the data. I think that people who have been interested in medical and health issues will continue to use the records, but I do not think that the digitisation will alter how historians write about the past.” He continues, “Having easier access to the documents will be an enormous help in terms of conducting the research, but I am not sure it will change how historians interpret the past or draw conclusions about the period.”
In his writing, Downs has applauded the #BlackLivesMatter campaign. I suggest when talking that surely the Freedmen’s Bureau project epitomises exactly what that campaign is trying to show in bringing the past into the light and stating that every life matters. He agrees. “I think the original editors at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project at the University of Maryland, who began the process of organising the Freedmen’s Bureau records, editing them and anthologising the records, embodied the mantra of #BlackLivesMatter. Their experiences were shaped by the civil rights and Black Power movement and that really altered the history of Reconstruction. There has always been a symbiotic relationship between the production of black history and the Black Freedom struggle.”
Before these records came to light, there was somewhat of a pre-1870 ‘brick wall’ for anyone researching African-American family history and genealogy. As Downs explains, “These documents will provide a crucial piece in helping many African American families who are in search of their ancestors. However, many of the documents do not include first and last names, so they won’t be a panacea to the erasure of black lives in the archives. In the medical records, for example, there are few names, only numbers that represent the sick and dead freed-people.”
“The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery. The last name of my forefathers was taken from them when they were brought to America and made slaves, and then the name of the slave master was given, which we refuse, we reject that name today and refuse it. I never acknowledge it whatsoever,” Malcolm X.
Downs, tells me when talking about The Freedmen’s Bureau: “One of the deepest aftershocks of slavery that continues to live with us today is the violence within the archive; the epistemic forces that erased, eclipsed, and disavowed the lives of tens of thousands of people who were enslaved and whose names and lives were never documented or recorded. That is the trauma of slavery that continues to live with us today no matter what new technological forces develop in order to make the extant, surviving records available - it’s that loss that inspired novelists like Toni Morrison to write Beloved. The archive on black life will always have gaps, utterances, and ellipses that cannot be entirely rectified.”
Until now, oral history has played a huge part in connecting African-American families to their past. I asked Downs how he thought the Freedmen’s Bureau Project would affect the way African-Americans consider their history and genealogy: “I think many African-Americans have been thinking about their history, preserving oral traditions, and telling stories about their families for generations and I don’t think this will have a new effect on black genealogy. That said, I think that it will make it easier for those who privilege written, government records in order to do genealogical history.”
Downs conducted copious research and delved into the archived records of the Bureau long before anyone began to think of digitising them. He describes what people might find: “The records are very difficult to read; many of them exist as correspondences, circulars or fragmented reports; the documents in the medical division do not yield clear narratives. That said, the land disputes, unemployment negotiations and education records, which are part of other Freedmen’s Bureau divisions, do offer vivid snapshots of a particular moment or experience, but even those cannot be read in isolation: one should still consult the secondary literature on labour, land and education to contextualise the documents. I think the documents that offer the best and clearest narrative are the assistant commissioner reports, which are summaries of the Bureau’s activities in a given time and place.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau are recruiting tens of thousands of volunteers to help with the project; I wondered if Downs thought this would encourage people to take an interest in black history. He explains: “I think the digitalisation facilitates the research process but it does not invent the research into these records. Historians at the Freedmen and Southern Society Project have been making these documents available to the public since the early 1980s; they have explained how they are organised and have interpreted their meaning.”
The digitisation is a clear step forward, not only for those interested in genealogy, but also in attitudes towards this historical period. However, for Downs, while it may bring with it benefits, moving the archives online also brings with it a sense of loss. As he notes: “The digitisation will have a tremendous effect on how scholars will conduct research… [they] will be able to more easily and quickly navigate their way through more documents in a shorter span of time… That said, I really loved being in the archive, in the main reading room, pouring over the records… removing them from the box, carefully unfolding the records and holding the actual letter that someone wrote a century ago. I think that tactile intimacy that one develops with the records will be lost with the digitalisation.”
The history graduate in me agrees; there is nothing that connects you to the past in the same way as holding an original document from a time long ago. However, putting nostalgia aside, we can but praise the Freedmen’s Bureau project and the vast amount of volunteers who will be helping them reach their goals.
For those interested in taking up this task, Downs offers the following advice: “I would suggest that volunteers start with reading these volumes first - Freedom: Free Labour in the Upper South by Berlin et al, before diving into the digital records. Historians spend years training how to understand the past and uncovering it; having access to the records and reading them is not going to offer a clear and direct answer to the period… just because you have access to the records, one still needs to have the tools and knowledge to dissect and understand that body of material.” And with that, I order myself a copy and begin reading.
To find out more, head over to: http://freedmensbureau.com
Words: Lucy Slater
Image source: Theodor Kaufmann, 1867