I remember being ecstatic when my elementary school teacher told us we would be researching our ancestry for a presentation. My classmates immediately erupted with joy.
“I bet I’m related to the Queen!”
“I think Serena Williams is my cousin.”
“My dad told me that we’re related to the Hilton family.”
After handing us a list of ancestry websites to check out with our parents when we got home, Mrs. Gobinet said, “You don’t have to use these websites if you don’t want to. If you’d rather present about your cousin, grandmother, or anyone else in your family, please do so!”
We all nodded without hearing. Our brains were filled with the images of royal families relaxing in excessive gardens, famous celebrities performing on stage, the inventors of our favorite breakfast cereals – our soon-to-be-discovered family.
I ran home and convinced my mother to let me use the computer before dinner. We went to the first website on the list, put in my name, my parents’ names, and my grandparents’ names. The website’s progress bar came with status updates; Searching census records… Making matches… Drawing your family tree… After a few minutes, the next page started to load.
I remember being filled with nothing but despair when the search yielded nothing but the text: “0 results. Please click here to be notified if there are any more matches.”
We tried the other websites but were met with the same fate. I thought I would find a line drawn from my name to that of an ancient King’s – his great-great-great-great-great grandson. Or maybe, I hoped, I’d be lucky enough to be Beyoncé’s third cousin, twice removed.
The next day, I presented on my uncle – a well-known priest in the area – while others presented on past U.S. Presidents, prodigious artists, and economic pioneers.
I didn’t notice until much later that all of the kids who had spoken about their dead and amazing ancestors were White.
A few quick Internet searches told me that I was not the only Black person to find themselves staring at nothing when they tried to find their ancestors. Many people are unable to find their family tree, especially prior to 1870 – the first time Black people were included in the United States census.
But soon, information collected by the Freedmen’s Bureau – an organization created in 1865 by the U.S. Congress that helped tens of thousands of emancipated Blacks adapt to their new lives – will be available for free online. We owe our thanks to FamilySearch, a nonprofit family history organization, for digitizing the Freedmen’s Bureau handwritten documents.
Many of these documents identify the person’s final slaveholder – an important nugget of information that could allow some of us to reach back centuries to find our ancestors. Black children will be able to open up a free website and have their entire ancestry at the tip of their fingers; Black people searching for home will be able find where their roots are buried; many of the familial legacies and histories thought to be permanently fractured by slavery may very well be amended. This is huge.
These records essentially act “as a bridge to slavery and freedom,” said Hollis Gentry, a genealogy expert at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. “They are the earliest of recordings of people who were formerly enslaved. We get a sense of their voice. We get a sense of their desires, their goals, their dreams, their hopes.”
Up until now, for millions of Black Americans descended from enslaved people, ancestors often were an abstraction; existing as dashed lines on slaveholder records, their names never to be remembered. But now, the digitization and proliferation of the Freedmen’s Bureau documents will breath life into them. We will have access to their marriage history, family members, property records, hospital records, military service, and even their banking practices. Ancestors who once stood behind the 1870 Brick Wall will now be bathed in the light of the 21st century. We will find power in their victories and pride in their achievements. Despite the erasure of our ancestors’ culture and the eradication of their identities, their humanity will now be made available to all of us – for free.