In all my years doing research at the National Archives, I had never cried. That day in fall 2012, I had simply planned to examine documentary material that might help determine how the yet-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture would explore and present the complicated history of American slavery and freedom.
As I read through the papers of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands—the Freedmen’s Bureau, as it’s usually called—I decided to see if I could find records from Wake County, North Carolina, where I knew some of my own enslaved ancestors had lived. I had few expectations because I knew so little about my family’s history. From a surviving wedding certificate for my paternal great-grandparents, I’d gotten the name of my earliest-known family member, an enslaved woman named Candis Bunch, my great-great-grandmother. But scrolling through rolls of microfilmed documents from the Raleigh office of the Freedmen’s Bureau, I realized the chances were remote that I would find my ancestor.
But when I turned my attention to a series of labor contracts—designed to give the newly freed some legal protections as they negotiated working relationships with their former enslavers—I found a single page documenting a contract between Fabius H. Perry, who owned the plantation next to the one where my ancestors had been enslaved, and Candis Bunch. That page not only filled a void in my knowledge of my family’s history, but also enriched my understanding of myself.
I was amazed at what a single piece of paper could reveal. For two days of farm work in 1866, Candis received $1, and for 44 days of work in 1867, she received $11. The contract also revealed that her daughter Dolly was paid $3 for housework. As I read further, the contract delineated what Candis owed Perry for the purchase of cotton and soap.
What reduced me to tears was the fact that, out of her meager earnings, Candis had spent 60 cents on two “baker tins,” more than the payment she received for an entire day’s work. I remembered how my paternal grandmother, Leanna Bunch, who resided in Belleville, New Jersey, and died two weeks before my fifth birthday, used to bake cookies in the shape of hearts and crescent moons to cajole me into napping. Did she use the very same tins that Candis had labored to buy? Had that been the beginning of a family tradition: No matter how difficult times may be, always help the children find some joy?
With this personal discovery came the realization that documents like these from the Freedmen’s Bureau—well over a million pages, created out of bureaucratic necessity—could help African Americans today better understand themselves and their enslaved ancestors. These records, if made more accessible, could help all of us grasp the challenges, the pain, the losses, the courage, and the resiliency of a people who had both powered and endured the transition from slavery to freedom. They could bring the grand narrative of Reconstruction to a more human scale.
The people we encounter in the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau call out to be remembered. Their lives, their sacrifices, are stories to be revealed and lauded. Stories such as these also provoke discomfort—and, in some quarters, resistance. Politicians have been elected by sowing fear about “divisive” history. Is it divisive to point out that African Americans believed in, and struggled toward, an aspirational America, an America that had made promises but had not yet delivered?
The hope that freedom would transform a people and a nation was captured in a cartoon by Thomas Nast that appeared in Harper’s Weekly on January 24, 1863. Nast’s drawing celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation, issued by President Abraham Lincoln a few weeks earlier. The left side of the image depicts the horrific impact of slavery: slave auctions and the destruction of families; backbreaking labor in the cotton fields; a woman being whipped. On the right, the benefits of freedom: a country at peace, with formerly enslaved children attending school; a Black worker drawing fair wages; Black and white figures showing mutual respect toward each other. The centerpiece is an image of a Black family that has achieved middle-class status, with well-clothed children and elders sitting by the hearth. Nast’s cartoon looked forward to a future where fairness and freedom were the norm. That was the hope of Reconstruction, and the engine of that hope was the Freedmen’s Bureau.
On March 3, 1865, after nearly two years of debate, Congress passed “an Act to establish a Bureau for the Relief of Freedmen and Refugees.” Lincoln signed it into law the same day. The bureau, embedded in the War Department, was one of the first federal forays into social engineering, in some ways anticipating the more activist government policies of the New Deal and the Great Society. Simply put, its charge was to protect the basic rights and help provide for the basic needs of the 4 million people who had been, until recently, enslaved.
The value and impact of the Freedmen’s Bureau, from its inception until it was defunded, in 1872, cannot be overstated. At its peak, more than 900 bureau agents were located throughout the former Confederacy, in rural hamlets and urban centers. Among other things, these agents documented the violence that was at the core of white southern resistance to Reconstruction. They responded to and recorded the desire of the formerly enslaved to confirm their marital standing. They gave food to the poor and the indigent regardless of race. They helped establish Black educational institutions, from elementary “freedom schools” to colleges such as Shaw University, in North Carolina, and Howard University, in the nation’s capital. More than 40 “freedmen’s hospitals” served the sick, the malnourished, and those whose health had been damaged by the conditions of slavery. During a period when most in the South fought to violently overturn the changes implemented by Reconstruction, the Freedmen’s Bureau was one of the few outlets where African Americans could address their needs, obtain legal assistance, and see some evidence that change was at hand. One could argue that the bureau was, in essence, a form of reparations.
Simply by virtue of doing its work, the Freedmen’s Bureau amassed records of the stories, hopes, and disappointments of a people on the cusp of freedom. These documents reveal the agency of the newly emancipated: Freedom was not given but was seized and created by people who “made a way out of no way.” But the documents underscore how difficult the struggle was. Although they make the efforts of individuals and families visible and concrete, the records also reflect how the promise of Reconstruction was derailed by violence, northern apathy, and the rise of Jim Crow.
The documents unlock the names and experiences of people who are often invisible or silent in the conventional telling of history. A significant portion of the Freedmen’s Bureau papers reflect the importance of family, of reconnecting with kin separated by the vagaries of slavery, of protecting children. With freedom came an unyielding desire to find oneself by finding those who’d been sold away. The Freedmen’s Bureau, people hoped, could aid in restoring the bonds of family. In the documents, a freedwoman named Sina Smith described how her mother had been sold from Virginia to Tennessee “about eighteen years past … by Colonel Marshall.” Smith hoped that her mother, Eliza Williams, whom she was now able to “support … in her old age,” could be found, and noted that she was “a member of the Baptist Church” in Nashville.
Requests for assistance contained poignant details that might help locate a family member. A freedman named Hawkins Wilson wrote from Galveston, Texas, searching for his sisters, whom he had not seen in the 24 years since he’d been “sold at Sheriff’s sale” in Virginia. “One of my sisters, Jane,” he wrote, “belonged to Peter Coleman in Caroline County.” Wilson’s letter expressed a belief that the bureau could reconnect him with his family: “I am in hopes that they are still living … and I have no other one to apply to but you.” Wilson drafted an additional letter to be given to Jane. “Your little brother Hawkins is trying to find out where you are and where his poor old mother is … I shall never forget the bag of buiscuits you made for me the last night I spent with you.” He continued by saying he had led a good life and had “learned to read, and write a little.” He said that he hoped they might see each other, but added that if they did not “meet on earth, we might indeed meet in heaven.” Given that the letter remained in the files of the Freedmen’s Bureau, it is unlikely that Wilson was ever reunited with his family.
Numerous letters and depositions describe the frequent terrorist attacks aimed at controlling, intimidating, and killing the formerly enslaved. Some of the violence was random: Jacob Carpenter, from Gaston, North Carolina, stated to an authority that “he had been hunted [through the] town,” dodging gunfire, and “that his life was not safe at any time.” Tobe Jones, of Wilkes County, Georgia, went to visit his wife. Two men assaulted him; one, he recounted, “caught me by the collar and struck me with his fist. Several blows in the face … [He] then picked up a rock and ran after me, and said he would kill me.” White vigilantes also conducted organized raids, focusing their ire on Black teachers and ministers and those bold enough to vote. In Tennessee, churches were burned. In Arkansas, “the school house for colored children at Phillips Bayou was burned down” and a teacher was “ordered to leave.” Night riders—vigilantes intent on violently enforcing white supremacy—struck at those who worked to bring change to the South: On the night of April 18, 1868, 20 mounted men attacked the home of William Fleming, of Franklin, Tennessee; a few months later, in nearby Brownsville, “a party of freedmen were assaulted on their way home … and four of their members shot.” The Freedmen’s Bureau agent stationed in Tennessee noted that “there is an organization … who style themselves Ku, Klux and they are committing depredations on Colored people, property and outrages on their persons.”
The bureau papers highlight the role of women during Reconstruction. Throughout the documents, one encounters Black women demanding fair labor contracts, insisting on respect and common courtesy, seeking and providing educational opportunities, and fighting on behalf of their families. The paperwork exposes the violence and sexual abuse that were all too common in the lives of Black women. When Harriett Kilgore, of Chickasaw County, Mississippi, worked for her former enslaver, Landon Kilgore, in 1865, she was punished for working too slowly. “I told him I had done nothing for him to whip me. He said he wanted to whip me for some time and that I thought that I was free.” In September 1866, Rhoda Ann Childs, of Henry County, Georgia, was beaten, tortured, “and ravished” by an ex-Confederate soldier, in part because her husband had served in “the God damned Yankee Army.” Amanda Willis was forced out of her mother’s home near Springfield, Tennessee, and taken by a white man who “brought me down into the woods and had forcible connection with me.” Women fought back. In Wilkes County, Georgia, in May 1866, Tempy Hill, a freedwoman, saw a white man strike another Black woman, her sister-in-law Lydia Hill. She left her work in the field and confronted him with the “intention of fighting him and to take up for her color.” She struck the assailant with “a chunk of wood.”
The notion of access—to education and to American history through an African American lens—was central to the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016. I was its founding director. The effort to create the museum ultimately led to a project to make Freedmen’s Bureau records available to the broader public.
To begin the process of creating the museum, it was essential to understand the knowledge base of future visitors. For two years, starting in 2005, the museum conducted surveys throughout the country; reviewed an array of specialized reports on America’s understanding of its past; and organized on-the-street interviews that focused on young, diverse participants.
The data revealed that respondents had strong and conflicting views about the role, impact, and continuing resonance of slavery in American life. Almost everyone believed that slavery was an important story. Many felt that the museum should focus on how slavery shaped the African American experience and the way that slavery, “America’s original sin,” was an essential element in the founding and evolution of the United States. An equal number felt that, although it was once important, slavery had little meaning and relevance for contemporary audiences. I remember vividly the day when a Black woman, returning from church, greeted me as we passed on the street. She thanked all those involved in building the museum. But as she hugged me, she whispered, “Whatever you do, don’t talk about slavery.” To her and others, the museum had a chance “to help folks get beyond slavery”—to no longer be constrained by a past that some felt was embarrassing.
What this divide made clear to the museum staff was the need to centralize slavery and freedom as forces that helped define and continue to influence American politics, culture, and economics. But that would not be enough. The museum needed to humanize slavery, so that visitors would recognize the strength and resiliency of the enslaved.
Besides slavery, members of the public were most interested in understanding their own family history. Today, programs like Finding Your Roots, on PBS, and commercial services like Ancestry .com have made personal history accessible and engaging. But in 2005, the way forward was less clear. In due course, the museum would establish the Robert Frederick Smith Explore Your Family History Center. As we considered the center’s role, the staff realized that the biggest contribution would be to help illuminate the lives and histories of the enslaved. The obstacles to families trying to recover the stories of enslaved ancestors were immense. For one thing, African Americans were not enumerated by name prior to the 1870 census.
The best way to get beyond this barrier lay in the Freedmen’s Bureau documents. Generations of scholars, including Ira Berlin, Thavolia Glymph, and Eric Foner, had researched the wealth of information that these papers contained and published scholarly monographs for academic audiences. But access to this trove was too important to be left in the hands of professional historians, or made possible only for those who could travel to the National Archives, in Washington, D.C., which owns and houses the original records.
This understanding led to the creation of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, whose aim was to create a digital portal that would make the bureau documents searchable by name and subject. Suddenly, hundreds of thousands of personal histories would be available not only to scholars but also to families in search of their ancestors and, by extension, in search of themselves: helping people find not embarrassment but strength and inspiration in their enslaved ancestors.
That portal could not have been built without an effective collaboration involving the museum, the National Archives, and a pioneering genealogical resource, FamilySearch—an organization dedicated to helping all people discover their family history. One major challenge was the need to review and transcribe upwards of a million pages of documents. Transcription was essential, because the records—written in 19th-century cursive by many different hands—are difficult for contemporary audiences to read. For this portal to have the desired reach, the documents needed to be transcribed by hundreds if not thousands of individuals—an army of trained volunteers whose energy had the additional benefit of helping generate support and enthusiasm for the museum itself in the years before its opening.
Much of the success of this ongoing transcription effort can be credited to FamilySearch and the community that it nurtured. Steeped in the traditions of the Mormon Church, FamilySearch had developed technology and processes that proved essential. Quality control was built in. Following its lead, Freedmen’s Bureau transcriptions are subject to a two-step review—first by a volunteer, then by a member of the Smithsonian staff. If additional edits are required at the final stage of review, the process begins again. Today, people accessing the Freedmen’s Bureau Digital Collection can see the original document as well as the transcription.
One can tell a great deal about a country by what it chooses to remember: by what graces the walls of its museums, by what monuments are venerated, and by what parts of its history are embraced. One can tell even more by what a nation chooses to forget: what memories are erased and what aspects of its past are feared. This unwillingness to understand, accept, and embrace an accurate history, shaped by scholarship, reflects an unease with ambiguity and nuance—and with truth. One frequent casualty of such discomfort is any real appreciation of the importance of African American history and culture for all Americans.
Why should anyone fear a history that asks a country to live up to its highest ideals—to “make good to us the promises in your Constitution,” as Frederick Douglass put it? But too often, we are indeed fearful. State legislatures have passed laws restricting the teaching of critical race theory, preventing educators from discussing a history that “might make our children feel guilty” about the actions and attitudes of their ancestors. Librarians around the nation feel the chilling effects of book bans. Some individuals who seek to occupy the highest office in the land fear the effects of an Advanced Placement class that explores African American history—a history that, as education officials in Florida have maintained, “lacks educational value”; a history that does not deserve to be remembered.
There is no reason to fear a history that, while illuminating the dark corners of America’s past, also displays values and expectations that are central to America’s identity: resiliency, family, education, fairness. The voices within the Freedmen’s Bureau papers demonstrate how the African American fight for access to education, economic opportunity, and basic human rights created paths that benefited all Americans.
Rather than running from this history, we should find in it sustenance, understanding, and hope. In the end, we can’t escape the past anyway. What Joe Louis said of an opponent applies to the legacy of history: You can run, but you can’t hide.
This article appears in the December 2023 print edition with the headline “The Archive of Emancipation.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.