About the National Archives

Remarks for Freedmen’s Bureau Project Celebration

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC
December 6 2016

Good morning. I am honored to be here representing the National Archives staff to celebrate the completion of the Freedmen’s Bureau Project.

The National Archives opened its doors in 1935 with a mission to collect, protect, and preserve the records of the U.S. Government. Today that collection translates into over 13 billion sheets of paper, 43 million photographs, miles and miles of video and film, and more than 5 billion electronic records—the fastest growing record form. These records include Oaths of Allegiance signed by George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge, as well as the Tweets that are being created by the White House as I am speaking right now.  

People come to our research rooms to access records, and many more go online to Archives.gov to search our National Archives Catalog.  One of the more popular series of records is the Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, otherwise known as the Freedmen’s Bureau.  

Established in the War Department on March 3, 1865, it provided assistance to tens of thousands of former slaves making the transition from slavery to freedom.  The bureau issued food and clothing, operated hospitals and refugee camps, established schools, helped freedmen legalize marriages, supervised labor contracts, and worked with African American soldiers and sailors and their heirs to secure back pay, bounty payments, and pensions.

The First Freedmen's Bureau records came to the National Archives in 1939, and they are  housed in our building just a few blocks away.

These records are a rich source of documentation for the black experience in America for the second half of the 19th century. Over the years, historians, social scientists, and genealogists have used these records to study and document the social and economic experiences of blacks in America during slavery and freedom as well as the federal government's policies toward them following the Civil War. In recent years, African American genealogists and family historians have used the records for ancestral research.    

Personnel from a number of NARA units––volunteers, archivists, archives technicians, conservators, writers, editors, and more ––worked together in this project to prepare, preserve, duplicate, and publish them.

I would like to recognize two retired members of the National Archives family who were involved with these records and who went above and beyond to make this a success. 

Elaine Everly spent much of her long career as an archivist working with 19th-century military records, and her doctoral dissertation was on the Freedmen's Bureau in Washington, DC.  She retired from the National Archives and Records Administration in 1999.

Reginald Washington is a retired archivist-genealogy specialist with the National Archives.  He lectures frequently on records and research procedures at the National Archives, and has served as the African-American Genealogy Subject Area Specialist at NARA.

Elaine and Reggie introduced researchers to these incredibly rich records that are now staples for genealogical research.  Their efforts led to the success of this project, providing access to documents from the files Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Company.