'Answer to a prayer': Local Mormons help complete massive project indexing records of freed slaves

FamilySearch International turns over database
Posted at 12:00 PM, Dec 27, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-27 12:00:11-05

CINCINNATI -- Earlier this month, FamilySearch International, the genealogical arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, turned over a newly indexed database of records of the Freedman’s Bureau to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

The indexing was the fruit of the labor of more than 25,000 volunteers from the Tri-State region and all over the world. As previously reported, they created a guide to handwritten records of the Freedman’s Bureau, which was organized during the Civil War to help newly freed slaves in 15 states and the District of Columbia.

Volunteers indexed 1.5 million digital images and uncovered the names of nearly 1.8 million former slaves, said Thom Reed, a senior marketing manager for FamilySearch, who led the project for the past three years. From 2004-07, Reed worked for Procter & Gamble and lived in the Cincinnati area.

Completing the project and making the records available to the public was an answer to a prayer, he said. Until now, he said, African American members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormons, like him haven’t been able to trace their ancestry as far back as other members of the church.

Now, he said, he knows more about his ancestors’ whereabouts during the Civil War era. “It has been a great spiritual blessing and the highlight of my career,” he said.

Genealogy is important to Mormons because they believe that family relationships persist beyond the grave. “There’s a duty to know the ancestors,” he said. “We want to make that connection so we will know those people when we see them on the other side.”

Volunteers doing the indexing included many Mormons, but also students at historically African American universities, pastors of large African American congregations, Native Americans and African Canadians, Reed said. But the largest single demographic was probably African American women 45 and older.

Reed himself did indexing while flying from city to city recruiting volunteers. He remembered indexing one record about a formerly enslaved woman with five children who needed food. The Freedman’s Bureau officer wrote that if she didn’t receive support, her family would surely die, Reed said.

Reed, who has five children of his own, was moved to tears.

“I thought, ‘What if it was my wife who was seeking help, and if she didn’t, my children would die?’” he said. “It brought me to tears that day to think how that family struggled and suffered, but it also brought me to tears to think I was actually doing something, right now, to help someone connect with that family.”

Matthew White, a West Chester resident who befriended Reed when Reed lived here, said Reed recruited him to help with the indexing. White, who has been a Mormon for 36 years, estimates that he indexed about 500 records.

The process taught him a lot about the freed slaves and their lives. He recalled reading a contract signed by one living in South Carolina who agreed to do share cropping and got paid $20 for an entire summer of work.

“That ain’t a whole bunch of money,” White said.

Working with the records helped White, who grew up in the South mostly around white people, find his own blackness, he said.

“In America, we need to remember our history, especially for African Americans,” he said. “Younger African Americans don’t know about the struggle that African American people went through.”

His one regret about the project is that he couldn’t get more local African American churches involved in doing the indexing. He reached out to several local churches, he said, and at the Black Family Reunion, without much success.

The African American community may have perceived it as a white person’s project, he said, or may have shied away because it was a Mormon-led project. Some members of the more conservative Christian denominations don’t think of Mormons as being Christians, because they use an additional set of holy writings, the Book of Mormon.

The Mormon church has had African American members almost from its founding in 1830, Reed said, but until 1978 those of African descent were not allowed to become priests. Since the ban was lifted, there’s been in influx of those of African ancestry, with an estimated 700,000 worldwide now calling themselves Mormons.

In 2017, FamilySearch plans to launch another two projects focused on the African American community, Reed said, but probably not as big as the one just completed.

“I feel fortunate to be part of an organization and church that wants to make this effort to connect all God’s children with each other,” he said.