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Family History Workshops Held During Martin Luther King Day of Service in Philadelphia

Attendees of the largest Martin Luther King Day event in the United States had an opportunity to learn about their African American ancestors of the Civil War era on Monday, January 18, 2016. FamilySearch, sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, participated in the 21st annual Greater Philadelphia King Day of Service. The event attracted more than 140,000 volunteers and included over 1,800 projects in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. 

It was the perfect venue to share information about the Freedmen’s Bureau Project, an effort by FamilySearch to digitize the records of the freed slaves so that they will be searchable online.

“Participating in the signature project site for MLK day of service in Philadelphia is a one-of-a-kind opportunity,” shared Thom Reed, of Salt Lake City, Utah, who was there to represent FamilySearch and the Freedmen’s Bureau Project.

Thom Reed of FamilySearch and Lynda Tolson of Wilmington, Delaware, share insights on the Freedmen's Bureau Project. 

Reed hosted an information table and taught several indexing workshops at the signature project site at Girard College, where an estimated 5,000 volunteers helped with more than 150 service projects, workshops and presentations.

Emancipation freed nearly 4 million American slaves, and through the Freedmen’s Bureau, the names of many of those individuals were systematically recorded and preserved for future generations.

To help bring these thousands of records to light, the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was created—it was a partnership with FamilySearch International and the National Archives and Records Administration, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum. 

Once published, information for millions of African Americans will be accessible, allowing families to connect with their ancestors. But tens of thousands of volunteers are needed to make these records searchable online at

Workshop attendee Roberta W. of Philadelphia was very excited about doing the history for her family and about doing this indexing work to help the Smithsonian with the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which has partnered with FamilySearch and the National Archives. Deborah Scott of Philadelphia similarly shared that volunteering to index “makes me feel that I can reach out and touch the people I have never known and feel them in my heart.” Establishing a group of seniors and youth to work together was an idea from another workshop attendee, Graselda Thomas Johnson. She commented, “The older ones can read cursive and the younger ones can key in the information.” 

The African American Museum of Philadelphia (AAMP) hosted four days of MLK events including an information table for the Freedmen’s Bureau Project. On Saturday, Reed shared flyers and indexing tips with more than 150 museum visitors. Melvin W., facility manager at AAMP, was so excited about the project that he called his mother, Mary, to come to the museum to learn about indexing from Reed.

“The city of brotherly love is a great place to encourage African Americans to reconnect with their Civil War–era ancestors,” said Reed, who encouraged the participants to begin building their own family tree.

People in the Philadelphia area were also encouraged via social media to participate in a Virtual Day of King Service by learning about and volunteering for the Freedmen's Bureau Project.

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