Congress Authorizes $3 Million for Preservation of Freedmen's Bureau Papers

Kate Masur, December 2000

Congress has authorized an appropriation of $3 million for safeguarding the records of the Freedmen's Bureau. (See the October 2000 Perspectives for the background on this legislation.) The Freedmen's Bureau records document the activities of a federal agency that sought to help freedpeople and war refugees adjust to life after the Civil War and slave emancipation. After considering a $1.5 million appropriation, Congress arrived at the $3 million figure because of the magnitude of the effort required to prepare and microfilm the bureau's records, which total over 1,100 cubic feet.

Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.), a sponsor of the Freedmen's Bureau Records Preservation Act of 2000, reminded her congressional colleagues that Congress itself had become "engaged in the overwhelming challenge of moving millions of slaves from bondage to freedom" when it established the Freedmen's Bureau in 1865. The bureau's records are now crucial for African American genealogists, Millender-McDonald argued. She said that just "as ship manifests are the vital link between European-Americans and their European ancestors, the Freedmen's Bureau records are the link for African-Americans to their slave and African ancestors."

Pearl-Alice Marsh, a spokesperson for Millender-McDonald, said preserving the Freedmen's Bureau papers is only the beginning of a much larger effort. Citing decaying paper and fading ink, she said Congress should quickly turn its attention to preserving other Civil War-era records such as the papers of the Freedmen's Bank.

The act designates the National Archives as administrator of the new funds and specifies Howard University and other institutions as partners in the preservation project. Marsh said the archives might choose to work with genealogy groups, historical societies, or other colleges and universities. Howard University, named for Freedmen's Bureau director Oliver Otis Howard, originated in the post-Civil War era as an offshoot of the Freedmen's Bureau.

Reginald Washington, an archivist who specializes in African American genealogical resources at the National Archives, heralded the act as a "win/win situation" that will help the archives in its goals of preserving and disseminating its holdings. Filmed copies of the Freedmen's Bureau papers can be distributed to the archives' regional branches and made available for loan to other institutions.

Several hurdles remain, however. The new act only authorizes funding; if an appropriation is not made this fall, the act will be held over and the appropriation proposed again in 2001. Additionally, staff at the National Archives must stretch to find space to prepare and film the records in a 1930s building stuffed with federal records and undergoing a multiyear renovation.

—Kate Masur is a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Michigan and is on the staff of the AHA.