Until now, many African American families tracing their lineage were unable to find much of anything earlier than around 1870, the first year that black Americans were included in the U.S. Census. All of that could change by the end of next year, as a new collection from the Freedman’s Bureau is set to be digitized and made available online for free as an extension of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

The Guardian reports:

The records belong to the Freedmen’s Bureau, an administrative body created by Congress in 1865 to assist slaves in 15 states and the District of Columbia transition into free citizenship. Before that time, slaves were legally regarded as property in the US and their names were not officially documented. They often appeared only as dash marks – even on their owners’ records.

African Americans trying to trace family history today regularly hit the research equivalent of a brick wall prior to 1870, when black people were included in the US census for the first time.

Now a major project run by several organisations is beginning to digitise the 1.5 million handwritten records from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which feature more than four million names and are held by various federal bodies, for full online access.

The records will include marriages, full names, and dates of slave ownership, and any other details available via the Freedman’s archives. The records have been available to the public in Washington, D.C., but this is the first time they will be digitally searchable.

Hollis Gentry, a genealogy specialist at the Smithsonian, said at the announcement of the project in Los Angeles on Friday: “The records serve as a bridge to slavery and freedom. You can look at some of the original documents that were created at the time when these people were living. They are the earliest records detailing people who were formerly enslaved. We get a sense of their voice, their dreams.”

“I predict we’ll see millions of living people find living relatives they never knew existed. That will be a tremendous blessing and a wonderful, healing experience,” Gentry said.

Volunteers are digitizing the records as you read this, and you can track the project’s progress here.

Via The Guardian and BoingBoing. Image via.