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Howard University Partners with the Virginia Freedmen Project:
A Breakthrough in Family and Historical Research for Descendants of Former SlavesThan 40 Years

Howard University Partners with the Virginia Freedmen Project:
A Breakthrough in Family and Historical Research for Descendants of Former Slaves

Washington, D.C., October 27, 2006 -- Howard University Professor of Computer Science, Harry Keeling, Ph.D., and several undergraduate and graduate students have partnered with the Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU), the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), and the Black History Museum and Cultural Heritage Center of Virginia to index Freedmen’s Bureau records from the state of Virginia.

Virginia will be the first state in the nation to participate in a historic project to extract, index, and digitize Freedmen’s Bureau records, thereby enabling both historians and descendents of emancipated slaves, free Blacks, and Black Union soldiers to access data usually researched with great difficulty.
Virginia was chosen to take the lead in this important project in recognition of the Jamestown 2007 Commemoration of America’s 400th anniversary, and considering the critical role African-Americans have played in Virginia’s early history. By focusing exclusively on records generated by the Virginia Freedmen’s Bureau, the Virginia Freedmen Project will serve as a guide for subsequent freedmen extraction projects in other Southern states.

The Freedmen’s Bureau records are effectively the “genesis records” of African American identity post Civil War. They provide the earliest major compilation of information on many freedmen, documenting for the period of 1865-1872 their names, legalized marriages, educational pursuits, work contracts, and receipt of rations, health care, legal, and other support.

After nearly five years of painstaking work, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) of the United States recently completed the microfilming of all Bureau records, which produced over one thousand rolls of microfilm. The Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU) will scan these records and provide overall direction to the extraction effort, and FamilySearch will ultimately provide online access to the genealogy—related data and images extracted. The GSU is now scanning the 203 rolls containing the Virginia records and will assess over 300,000 digitally scanned images for inclusion in the Virginia Freedmen Project.

The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia will spearhead the recruitment and coordination of community volunteers, who will extract and index information contained on the scanned records. The Virginia volunteers will utilize updated FamilySearch indexing software and implementation procedures that FamilySearch is currently using to index the 2.4 million rolls of microfilm in its collection.

Finally, Howard University will place the broader collection of extracted and indexed records on the website for access to genealogists, historians, students, and family researchers. Keeling and his students have prepared a test website,, to facilitate public access to the finished product. Utilizing cutting-edge technology, they are also developing software that will enable more sophisticated searches.

“The most important aspect of these efforts is that the invaluable historical artifacts and sociological and genealogical knowledge that they contain will be preserved forever and made available to everyone,” said Dr. Keeling.

Howard University has a longstanding relationship with the Freedmen’s Bureau. The University is named for Civil War hero General Oliver O. Howard, the Bureau’s first commissioner and the school’s third president. In celebration of Black History Month, Howard University President H. Patrick hosted an announcement ceremony on Feb. 27, 2001 marking the successful passage of the Freedmen’s Bureau Records Preservation Act of 2000. Signed into law in December 2000, the act requires the Archivist of the United States to take steps to preserve the records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, commonly referred to as the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Howard University is one of 48 U.S. private, Doctoral/Research-Extensive universities and comprises 12 schools and colleges. Founded in 1867, students pursue studies in more than 120 areas leading to undergraduate, graduate and professional degrees. Since 1998, the University has produced two Rhodes Scholars, a Truman Scholar, 13 Fulbright Scholars and nine Pickering Fellows. Howard also produces more on-campus African-American Ph.D.s than any other university in the world. For more information on Howard University, call 202-238-2330, or visit the University’s Web site at


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