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Database to help slaves' descendants
State joins with black history museum, genealogical society to create online database to help descendants of slaves find family roots

 This is a copy of Hawkins Wilson's actual letter. Click here to read the full text.
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Date published: 10/27/2006

RICHMOND--In 1867, a freed slave from Caroline County wrote to the Freedmen's Bureau in Richmond seeking help in finding the family he lost when he was sold 24 years earlier.

"I am anxious to learn about my sisters, from whom I have been separated many years," the letter reads. "My name is Hawkins Wilson and I am their brother, who was sold at Sheriff's sale and used to belong to Jackson Talley."

Wilson, who was then living in Galveston, Texas, listed his sisters' names and the families who owned them. He said he had no one else to turn to for help.

There's no indication that Wilson ever found the sisters and mother he was seeking. A letter he included to be sent to his sister Jane is still in bureau records.

But state leaders hope a new project will help the descendants of slaves trace their ancestors. The Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia is working with the Genealogical Society of Utah to digitize thousands of records of the Freedmen's Bureau.

The "Freedmen Project" was announced yesterday by Gov. Tim Kaine, along with Richmond Mayor Doug Wilder, state legislators and representatives from the museum, the Genealogical Society and other groups.

"This is equivalent for African-Americans [to] the records of Ellis Island being put up," Kaine said.

The Freedmen Bureau records, which were stored in the National Archives in Washington, for 140 years, have been converted to microfilm. The project will use that film to create a database that people can search online to find information about their ancestors.

"So much of that time was about the violent and forced tearing-apart of families," Kaine said. Those families can't be put back together, he added, but this project will "put back together stories of family."

Project leaders hope to have the online database up and running by the spring. Kaine said the state also plans to erect a historical marker at the corner of 10th and Broad streets in Richmond, where the Freedmen's Bureau was located.

African-Americans often have difficulty researching their genealogy because their slave ancestors were sold, families were separated, marriages were not officially recorded, and what records existed were sometimes lost or destroyed.

Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said her family can't trace its ancestors back beyond her grandfather, himself a former slave.

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