As quiet as it’s kept, for roughly seven years, the United States Government operated an agency designed to help newly recognized citizens transition from slavery to free life. Established in 1865, The Freedmen’s Bureau was erected to provide such services as “food, shelter, clothing, medical services, and land to displaced Southerners, including newly freed African Americans,” according to the Act that made it possible. Though short lived, records of the dealings between freed people and the Bureau give an unprecedented peek into history—one, genealogist Nicka Sewell-Smith says, proves that Black women were advocating for themselves well before the formation of Women’s Suffrage.
“We’re just a patriarchal society by nature. That’s just how we operate,” Sewell-Smith tells EBONY. “But for Black women in particular, looking at the collection from their vantage point, there is a lot there that folks just overlook.”
Emboldened by freedom, and the presence of the Bureau, Black women pushed back against unfair labor contracts, defended their children against inequitable “apprenticeship” programs, reported violent crimes and intimate partner violence, and stood before magistrates to defend their rights. Sewell-Smith considers these records the first time Black women had autonomy, where their names are written, and where they don’t take a backseat to men.
Last month, Ancestry, the international genealogy company, made these records available for free. “Today, Ancestry spotlights an important, yet often overlooked, part of American history by unveiling the world’s largest digitized and searchable collection of Freedmen’s Bureau and Freedman’s Bank records,” the company said in a press release at launch. “This addition of more than 3.5 million records can help descendants of previously enslaved people in the U.S. learn more about their families. The collection can enable meaningful family history breakthroughs because it is likely the first time newly freed African Americans would appear in records after Emancipation in 1863, as many enslaved people were previously excluded from standard census and federal documents.”
For those hoping to connect to this part of their history, Sewell-Smith suggests keeping the search broad and asking family for help. Also, don’t overlook people who aren’t exact familial matches, as they can still lead you to new discoveries. People who lived within the same community can offer important clues. She knows this first-hand as someone who used the bureau records to locate her 3rd great-grandparents.
“A lot of times people get tunnel vision and they get very individualized when it comes to their research thinking, I just want my great great grandparents,” she says. “And what DNA, and this collection really does is say, “No. We need to be tracing everyone. Had I been looking just for [my direct descendent], I wouldn’t have found the record for an uncle, which then gave me the slaveholding location, which gave the slave owners name which gave me the will and the probate at the house, with my people on it.”