Online project will digitize records of free blacks after slavery

Published 6:53 pm Friday, October 27, 2006

Twenty-four years removed from slavery in rural Virginia, Hawkins Wilson had established himself as a respected Texas minister, but there was a missing piece: The mother and sisters he’d left behind.

He wrote to the Freedmen’s Bureau in Richmond.

“I am anxious to learn about my sisters, from whom I have been separated too many years,” wrote Wilson, by then a husband in his late 30s. “I am in hopes that they are still living.”

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Records the bureau used to reconnect families like Wilson’s — from battered work contracts to bank forms — will be placed online in part of a new project linking modern-day blacks with their ancestors.

The Virginia Freedmen Project will digitize over 200,000 images collected by the Richmond bureau, one of dozens of offices established throughout the South to help former slaves adjust to free life.

Thursday, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine unveiled the project and a state marker near the site where the Richmond bureau once stood, in downtown Richmond.

“This is the equivalent for African Americans of Ellis Island’s records being put up,” said Kaine, who was joined by former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the nation’s first black governor and the grandson of slaves.

Researchers will eventually transfer data from all of the southern states to an online database, said Wayne Metcalfe, vice president of the Genealogical Society of Utah, partners in the project.

Records from Virginia, which is piloting the effort, should be ready to go online by the middle of next year, Metcalfe said.

“It was one of the larger states and one of the most complete collections available,” he said. “It’s a goldmine, as far as a genealogist is concerned.”

It also fit in nicely with Jamestown 2007, a commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the nation’s first permanent English colony in America.

Past commemorations have focused on colonists.

“One of the things it is our obligation to do is to tell the story in 2007 differently than the way it was told in 1907,” Kaine said. “It’s a wonderful time, but a time with bittersweet to it.”

Metcalfe said some half million slaves were left to establish a new life following emancipation. It meant learning how to manage money, setting up house and reconnecting with family — prospects both wonderful and terrifying.

Established in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands — also called the Freedmen’s Bureau — helped former slaves find clothes, food and jobs.

Bureaus also kept meticulous records, documenting marriages, work histories and even complexion.

Those records will be scanned from microfilm and compiled into an electronic index families will eventually be able to access, Metcalfe said.

“They would go to the index, find the name of the individual that they’re looking for, and then associated with that name would be an image number,” Metcalfe said. “They can get all the additional information that there may be in the record by clicking that image number.”

Freedmen’s Bureaus disappeared by the 1870s. But not before they became an invaluable resource to people like Wilson.

In a letter dated May 11, 1867, he offered bureau officials details of his family’s old home in Caroline County, and urged them to pass along a note to his sister, Jane.

“Your little brother Hawkins is trying to find out where you are and where his poor old mother is,” reads the letter that will be included in the database. “Your advice to me to meet you in Heaven has never (lapsed) from my mind.”

Historians don’t know if he ever found his family.

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