(Reuters) - The Mormon Church will lead efforts to index records of about 4 million former slaves and their families in the hope of connecting African Americans with their Civil War-era ancestors, the Utah-based faith said on Friday.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) has sponsored a non-profit organization called FamilySearch, which made the announcement alongside senior LDS officials in Los Angeles on the 150th anniversary of “Juneteenth,” the day when word reached the last group of slaves that the Civil War was over and they were free.
“One of our key beliefs is that our families can be linked forever and that knowing the sacrifices, the joys and the paths our ancestors trod helps us to know who we are and what we can accomplish,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles told the launch.
“I witnessed the healing and joy African Americans experienced as they discovered their ancestors for the first time in those records.”
The Freedmen’s Bureau Project is named after the agency created in 1865 by the U.S. Congress to help freed slaves transition to citizenship, providing food, housing, education, and medical care. It also recorded their names, and some details about their relatives and backgrounds.
In partnership with institutions including the National Archives and Records Administration and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), FamilySearch is coordinating the work of volunteers “indexing” more than one million handwritten records, making them searchable online.
The records, which also include marriage registers, labor contracts, apprenticeship papers and others, were compiled in 15 states and the District of Columbia. The goal is to have the records fully indexed by the fall of next year.
Jermaine Sullivan, a black LDS Church leader who oversees nine Mormon congregations in Atlanta, Georgia, said he hoped the announcement would do something to bring hope and healing to communities devastated by the South Carolina church shooting.
Sullivan’s wife, Kembe, noted that “Juneteenth” is a time for the celebration of family, reflection and self-improvement, and for planning for the future.
Hollis Gentry, genealogy specialist at the Smithsonian NMAAHC, said she is descended from individuals documented in the papers.
“The records serve as a bridge to slavery and freedom,” she said. “It’s a critical period and not just for African Americans, but for America because it helps us to understand how they transformed the society.”
Reporting by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Sandra Maler