Volunteers Needed: Transcribing Freedmen’s Bureau Records

Volunteers who have an interest in genealogy, post-American Civil War history, or the African American experience during the Reconstruction Era are needed to help transcribe the thousands of pages of handwritten letters, telegrams, and reports of the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Other records to be transcribed include reports and communications about the post-Civil War Freedmen’s relief efforts, hospitals, vaccination programs, establishment of the schools (including names of schools, teachers and superintendents), labor programs, etc.

Sample Transcription, Pages 71 and 72 of the Louisiana Education Correspondence

Transcription work will also include letters and reports sent directly to the Commissioner in Washington and his subordinates regarding developments occurring in the field offices, as well as problems encountered…from lack or delay of funds promised, desperate pleas for food and medicine, shortages of school supplies, misuse of public resources, confiscation of lands, unpaid teachers, disciplinary matters, disputes, and even murders

These extremely interesting and historically significant records are considered to be the richest and most extensive documentary source for interpreting the African American experience in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era.

History of the Freedmen’s Bureau

On March 3, 1865, Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau) to help rebuild the South and transition the 4 million newly freed Blacks from slavery to a free-labor society.

The Freedmen’s Bureau was placed under the authority of the War Department and organized into districts that covered the 11 former Confederate southern states; the border states of Maryland, Kentucky, and West Virginia; and Washington, D.C. A majority of the bureau’s initial district commissioners and agents were former Civil War soldiers.

The purpose of the bureau was to provide practical aid and relief to the tens of thousands of former Black slaves and impoverished white individuals in the aftermath of the Civil War.

The Civil War had decimated the communities, farms, and homesteads in the South, as well as the plantation-based economy. Millions of people were dislocated, faced starvation, and left with only the clothes on their backs.

The duties of the Freedmen’s Bureau included supervision of all affairs relating to refugees, freedmen, and legal custody of abandoned lands and property during the Reconstruction Era. They provided food and clothing, operated hospitals, established refugee camps, helped locate and reunite family members, and built or converted old buildings into schools to ensure everyone could receive an education.

Freedmen’s Bureau School established in north Florida

The Freedmen’s Bureau also provided new citizen services directly to the freed slaves in terms of legalizing marriages, legal representation, investigating racial disputes, negotiating labor contracts, securing military pay and pensions for Black veterans, and settling individuals on abandoned or confiscated lands.

One of the major accomplishments of the Freedmen’s Bureau was the building of thousands of schools for Black children, and the founding of colleges such as Howard University in Washington, D.C., Fisk University in Nashville in Tennessee, and Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia.

Freedmen’s Bureau Black College

The Freedmen’s Bureau was originally intended to last only a year, but after much political debate, continued until the summer of 1872.

Start Contributing Today!

Become a Smithsonian Digital Volunteer and help make historical documents, such as the Freedmen’s Bureau records, more accessible.

Work virtually, side-by-side with hundreds of other Smithsonian “volunpeers” who collaboratively index and transcribe millions of records each year. The Freedmen’s Bureau records were previously indexed and are currently available to search online through popular genealogy websites. The present effort is to transcribe the actual handwritten documents.

Get started now at the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center. Historical societies, community groups, and other organizations are encouraged to host Transcribe-A-Thons to get their members involved in a burst of transcription work.  

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