Millions of African Americans will soon be able to trace their families through the era of slavery, some to the countries from which their ancestors were snatched, thanks to a new and free online service that is digitizing a huge cache of federal records for the first time.
Handwritten records collecting information on newly freed slaves that were compiled just after the civil war will be available for easy searches through a new website, it was announced on Friday.
Back in 2010, when Dana Saxon decided that she wanted to trace her family’s lineage, her expectations were low. “I thought, for people who survived slavery, there’d be little public information,” she says. What happened next “blew her mind”–and led to the creation of Ancestors Unknown, an international nonprofit that is bringing the past to the most impressionable among us: young students.
Saxon discovered that public archives had not completely ignored the existence of the enslaved, who legally were considered the same as property. While putting together the puzzle of her family’s past, she had an epiphany: “There were so many ancestors waiting to be discovered, waiting to be appreciated for what they did to help get us to where we are today,” she says. Knowing that most school curriculums do not include the names and contributions of people from the African Diaspora, she “wanted to find a way to help young people place themselves and their ancestors in the larger context of history.”
The questions of who we are and where we came from can often be answered, not by looking inward, but by looking backward. While nature and nurture certainly play the primary roles in our development as individuals, it’s only through the study of one’s ancestry that we develop a more complete view of ourselves as how we fit into the larger scope of human history. Luckily, tracing one’s roots is easier than ever thanks to the Internet.