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Records, and when there are no records

Day One of the African-American Research track at the Institute of Genealogical and Historical Research is “in the bag,” and already there’s enough information to pack away that it’s impossible to think anything other than that spending a week in the humidity of Alabama — in June — is still a Very Good Idea.

The keys for me yesterday were records I haven’t dealt with in any depth before, the essential nature of slavery … and the most powerful statements I’ve ever heard about what it means when there are no records.

When there are no records

It was the first speaker of the day who hammered home that last point yesterday. Dr. Osei Agyemang Bonsu, a Ghanian veterinarian-turned-genealogist, is now with FamilySearch International and works in its oral history gathering project. He spoke under the worst of circumstances: there were technical glitches with the equipment that interfered with the whole way he wanted to make his presentation. I suspect he left thinking nothing had gone the way he planned.

But two things he said are things nobody in that class will ever forget.

In Africa, he said, and in many other parts of the world, the reason to do oral genealogies — to interview living people and record their stories and what they know of their ancestors — is because there are no alternatives.

Not that there are some records and not others. Not that a courthouse burned with some things we might need. Not that vital records didn’t begin until a certain time. No, in some places, there are simply no alternatives at all.

And it’s that fact that made the other things he said all the more powerful. There’s an African proverb, Dr. Bonsu, said, and it goes like this: “When an old man dies, it is as if a library is burnt down.”

Think about that the next time you think about whether or not to put off that videotaped interview you’re planning to do with a grandparent or oldest aunt or uncle. And don’t let that library burn down.

Slavery as a business

Roland Barksdale-Hall was the speaker who drove home the second key point from yesterday: slavery was a business.

Now we all know, at some level, that slavery was a matter of dollars and cents. We understand the economic basis for it. But as genealogists and family historians in the 21st century, it’s still hard to separate out the business part of slavery from the people part of it. And though it was never stated, that can interfere with our research.

Why? Because businesses create and keep records for business reasons, not family history reasons. Think cargo lists, not passenger lists. Think insurance to protect the property owner, not the person who might be physically injured. Think property taxes, not head taxes (or, in many states, in addition to head taxes). Look for business records, not personal records, to move research ahead during the time of slavery.

Those fabulous records

And it was Sharon Batiste Gillins who offered an in-depth look at a set of records I’ve known of but haven’t worked with to any great degree for those first few critical years after the end of slavery. Covering only seven years, from 1865 to 1872, the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau ought to be close to the top of the list for anybody doing Southern-states research.

Doesn’t matter if your ancestors were African-American. Doesn’t matter if your people were slave or free. Doesn’t matter if they arrived in America on the Mayflower or on the White Lion. If your folks were in the south in those seven years, you want to look at these records.

That’s because these are really not records of “the Freedmen’s Bureau” at all. That’s not the name of the agency that created them. It was the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, and that three-fold scope means that Bureau’s activities could well have touched — directly or indirectly — the lives of pretty nearly every man, woman and child south of the Mason-Dixon line after the Civil War.

And, when it touched those lives, it recorded the contacts in painstaking, sometimes excrutiating detail. Record Group 105 at the National Archives contains hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pages — readily available on microfilm — of records created by this Bureau on everything from crop successes and failures, disease and epidemics, the advances (or failures) of education, the labor contracts governing Freedmen, the issuance of subsistence rations to destitute persons black and white and so very much more.

In particular, the records of the Field Offices — the local agencies in the southern states, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia — are amazing in their detail. The records included report after report after report: registers and lists of freedmen; inspections; requests for dispute resolution; labor contracts; education; medical; and summary reports. One monthly report required from each field office had 36 separate columns for the entry of information that can help paint a detailed picture of conditions in a community after the war.

It’s enough to make an ordinary citizen cry — and a genealogist cry for joy.

Can’t wait to see what today brings…

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