In a year where the history of Black lives have been at the forefront of protests and pleadings throughout the world, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and FamilySearch, the family history and genealogical arm of the church, are stepping up and bringing Black families together.
Brent Hansen, program manager and leader of the African Heritage Team at FamilySearch has been busting his buttons waiting to announce the 50 different collections he and his team have been working on to help Blacks find their ancestors.
Why it matters
The LDS Church believes genealogy is important in connecting generations of family members together. Through vicarious work in the church’s temples, members can be united and sealed to family who are departed. In turn, the spirits of those who have died can accept or reject the ordinances performed for them, including baptism, marriage and the sealing of children to parents, according to the church.
For Black families who have had ancestors that were enslaved or trafficked, documenting and finding family names and history is unique and not without some effort.
“It’s a myth there aren’t African records or they are hard to find,” said Thom Reed, deputy chief genealogical officer. “We’re publishing (names) all the time. We’re working feverishly.”
Hansen noted that last year they found 10 million records of Black family names.
The projects Hansen is currently working on are gathering records from African Americans, Brazil, the Caribbean and Africa. More are scheduled in the future.
They have added, in just the past 18 months, five times as many names than are found in the Freedman Bureau data base, according to Hansen.
The most well-known project on gathering former enslaved Black names was a project done four years ago for the Freedmen Bureau.
The Freedmen’s Bureau, organized under an 1865 congressional order at the end of the Civil War, provided assistance to freed slaves in many ways. Handwritten records of these transactions include records such as marriage registers, hospital or patient registers, educational efforts, census lists, labor contracts and indenture or apprenticeship papers and other documents. The records were compiled in 15 states and the District of Columbia.
In December 2016, FamilySearch, the world’s largest genealogy organization, presented the newly indexed database of the historic Freedmen’s Bureau Records to the Smithsonian National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The database contains genealogical information of freed African Americans after the Civil War, according to a church press release.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presented the database on a flash drive to museum founding director Lonnie Bunch in front of an audience of congressional leaders, genealogical experts and volunteers who were key to the project’s success.
“For the first time in history, African Americans can now bridge the gap between freedom and slavery and reunite their families — on paper — that were once torn apart by slavery,” Christofferson said.
For over a year, more than 25,000 volunteers participated in the project in the United States and Canada. Volunteers uncovered the names of nearly 1.8 million of the 4 million people who were enslaved, according to FamilySearch.
Key to the project’s success were the nationwide chapters of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society who partnered with local Latter-day Saint congregations, Black churches and others in more than 100 indexing events.
According to Sydney Bjork, content strategist for record priorities at FamilySearch, they have found hidden gems during their research.
Bjork found the story of Robert Church out of Memphis in one of the heaviest Black populated counties in Tennessee.
“Robert Church was the ‘first Black capitalist’,” Bjork said. “He went from being a slave to being a millionaire. He died in 1920 at the age of 73.”
Bjork said the records of slaves are unique. One Charles Carter, a slave owner, had his slaves’ births registered so you can see how families are grouped, babies that died and how many grew to adulthood. Those are significant records in genealogical research.
“It’s impossible to have a full picture of what their life looked like,” Bjork said. “They have amazing resilience. They survived passage across the ocean, survived working in the fields and in the homes, but they pushed forward.”
The Virginia birth records are unique. They made lists of women’s names that had been given a blanket. “That signifies they just had a baby,” Bjork noted.
Reed said they also have had to look at property tax records because the slaves were considered property and owners had to pay taxes on them.
“If you can connect to a slave holder, that’s big,” Reed said. “It’s a different type of research and harder to find.”
According to Hansen, there is a core team of nine people on the Black Heritage projects.
“In Africa there is a significant amount of oral records being gathered,” Hansen said. “Exciting things are happening in Africa.”
Brazil’s records are currently being digitized. The Caribbean focus is on capturing records.
“We’ve been digitizing records for a long time. There are millions of records in the Caribbean,” Hansen said.
Hansen noted there are many missionaries supporting the projects and researching.
“Our strategy is to get the biggest bang for the buck. Smaller places get moved to the back burner. We have records that are searchable sitting in our back pockets,” Bjork said.
Reed said the team has been working with Michigan State University and its centralized database at http://enslaved.org. At Vanderbilt University, the church is working with the Slave Society.
“We can’t do this alone,” Reed said. He said they are working with a woman in Jamaica using Facebook who is helping with research.
“There is a woman running Barbados records now and we have another group interested,” Reed said.
Reed said they have all felt the influence and gentle direction from those who are on the other side.
“This is all part of Heavenly Father’s plan to redeem his children,” Reed said.
Hansen added, “This hastening of the work is more than us. We are motivated and strengthened.”
While the African Heritage projects continue, COVID-19 has affected the research worldwide. They have had to shut down 40 cameras recording information. Oral genealogies have to be face to face in countries that have closed borders.
“I get out of bed every morning anxious to do what we’re doing,” Hansen said.
While many march for Black lives here, Hansen believes there are many more of their ancestors excited and waiting to be connected to their family on the other side.
Daily Herald reporter Genelle Pugmire can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, (801) 344-2910, Twitter @gpugmire