Research Based on Personal Histories

Library's Freedmen’s Bureau collection documents lives of formerly enslaved Americans

Sawyer Library acquires Freedmen’s Bureau collection

Suffolk students and historians have convenient access to the Freedmen’s Bureau papers now that the University’s Sawyer Library is home to a complete microfilm copy of the letters, marriage and hospital registers, census lists, and other documents that together tell the story of American people freed after the Civil War.

The Mildred F. Sawyer Library is making the National Archives and Records Administration’s Freedmen’s Bureau collection available in partnership with the New England chapter of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society.

Records’ relevance today

“These records will teach our students about a very important era in public history and provide historical background to issues such as the ongoing discussion of memorials and monuments of the Civil War,” said Suffolk History Professor Robert Bellinger. “The students will also learn about the research process and be prepared for work in other archives.”

Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in 1865 to assist in the reconstruction of the South and to aid formerly enslaved people in the transition to freedom and citizenship.

Professor Robert Bellinger and librarian Sarah Griffis examine projection of Freedmen's Bureau document.
Professor Robert Bellinger and librarian Sarah Griffis examine projection of Freedmen's Bureau document.

The handwritten records include letters, labor contracts, and lists of food rations issued, indentures of apprenticeship, marriage and hospital registers, and census lists. They were administered by the War Department and provide a unique view into the lives of newly freed individuals and social conditions in the South following the Civil War.

Complement to history class

“The Freedmen’s Bureau papers will provide a great resource for Suffolk University, its students, and people throughout our community,” said Bellinger, who has taught the course “African Americans in Slavery and Freedom: Reconstruction and The Freedmen’s Bureau Papers” for a number of years.

In the past, he would take his students out to the National Archives site in Waltham to research the Freedmen’s Bureau microfilm records.

“It wasn’t an easy place to get to,” said Bellinger, laughing. “We took public transportation to Belmont Center and then had to walk a mile.”

Extensive collection

Students now will have easy access to the source material through the Sawyer Library’s Freedmen’s Bureau materials, comprised of 1,200 rolls of microfilm with roughly 600 to 800 images on each roll. The original documents are housed at the National Archives and Records Administration headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“We are excited that we have forged this partnership with the Sawyer Library at Suffolk,” said Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society of New England President Stella Pierce. “These records are important because, in addition to information about freed slaves, they cover many people of all races who were displaced persons following the Civil War – soldiers, widows, business owners, and others – and detail the devastation and dire economic conditions in the South.”

Researchers and history enthusiasts are expected to join Suffolk students in consulting the region’s Freedmen’s Bureau resource at Suffolk’s Boston campus.

“We are one of just a few New England institutions that have the complete set of papers easily available,” said Suffolk’s Sarah Griffis, acting library director and senior reference and instruction librarian. “The Sawyer Library is proud to offer access to this rich special collection for all of our scholars’ needs and for the greater community’s benefit.”

Collaborative effort

“This information will be valuable for everyone – students, educators, historians, genealogists,” said Joe Keefe, archives specialist at the National Archives and Records Administration site in Waltham, which holds federal government records for all New England states. “People can now have permanent access to this collection that highlights black history prior to and after the Civil War.”

Keefe said that collaborative effort of all parties involved is key to the project’s success.

“The importance of this partnership is that we can all share information, share ideas, and share history to a wide variety of diverse communities and populations,” he said.

The Sawyer Library also houses the Clark Collection of African American Literature, with nearly 6,000 volumes, including the works of more than 2,730 African American authors, in collaboration with the Museum of African American History and the National Park Service's Boston African American National Historic Site.

Celebrating the partnerships

The University will host an event to celebrate its partnership with the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society-New England and the National Archives and Records Administration from 11 a.m-1 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, in the Sawyer Library’s Poetry Center.

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