Over the summer, the Washington Post announced that FamilySearch International, one of the world’s major online genealogy firms, will publish 1.5 million images of records for 4 million freed African American slaves. The digitized records, owned by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), comprise Freedmen’s Bureau documents from the end of the Civil War and the start of Reconstruction. FamilySearch’s announcement appropriately came on June 19th, or Juneteenth, the annual celebration in the African American community of emancipation. WaPo noted that June 19, 2015 also marked 150 years since the Union Army declared the slaves of Texas, the last Confederate state, to be free.
The digital humanists at FamilySearch clearly recognize that release this dataset is a major work of digital history. The company has launched a standalone website, Discover Freedmen, to publicize the project. However, the records aren’t accessible on Discover Freedmen. Users still must make a free account on the main FamilySearch website before they begin tracking freedmen.
FamilySearch’s announcement is wonderful for family historians because the FamilySearch site is free to use. African Americans can track their ancestors, and historians can seek the records of freedmen, without paying to use the database or traveling to NARA offices. Of late, there has been controversy because NARA has hired contractors, including Ancestry.com and FamilySearch, to digitize family history collections. In exchange for helping NARA, however, Ancestry and its partner, Fold3, place a temporary embargo on the files before they are put online. Additionally, Ancestry and Fold3 charge users to access files. These family history documents can be used for free at NARA offices across the country, but many people don’t have the chance to travel to NARA offices, so they are stuck using Ancestry’s fee-for-service model. By making the Freedmen’s Bureau documents free, FamilySearch sidesteps the NARA/Ancestry brouhaha, decreases the waiting period for people to access the files, and expands public access to NARA resources.
Yet there may be an ulterior motive for FamilySearch’s Discover Freedmen project.
FamilySearch is an official subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church. (If you go on FamilySearch, you can see the extra privileges for LDS Church members, such as free accounts at Ancestry.com and other partner websites.) A major tenet of the LDS Church is that Mormons should identify their ancestors and symbolically baptize them through proxy baptisms held at LDS temples. Once a modern Mormon is baptized for the sake of the dead, Mormons believe that those deceased individuals have the opportunity in Heaven to profess their belief in Jesus Christ and ascend to the next level of the afterlife.
Accordingly, FamilySearch reiterates the Church’s policy on family relations – the firm holds “that families are meant to be central to our lives and that family relationships are intended to continue beyond this life.” The proxy baptism policy isn’t publicized on FamilySearch’s homepage, but pages are available with tips on finding ancestors who need temple ordinances (e.g., baptism) and how to request ordinances. Anyone can use FamilySearch, but the site was created initially to serve an LDS mission.
What does Mormon theology have to do with Reconstruction and the Freedmen’s Bureau? I don’t mean to criticize the LDS Church’s humanitarian impulses; FamilySearch provides a genuine public service with its free collections and collaboration with NARA. Nonetheless, the LDS Church has made significant efforts in recent years to recruit African American converts. One cannot help but wonder if the publication of African American genealogy records by a Church corporation is a subtle strategy to introduce black Americans to Mormonism and the good works Mormons can do. In this way, a simple genealogy project – digitizing federal records – becomes a tool for multiracial evangelization.
You can read instructions for accessing FamilySearch’s Freedmen’s Bureau records here.
Cover Photo: A publicity image from Discover Freedmen. Source: http://bit.ly/1UXmL17.