Up to now, genealogical research on African-American families often ran into a dead end after the search reached back to 1870, the first census that documented newly freed slaves as U.S. citizens.
That wall will be broken for many researchers because of last week's donation of an indexed database of the Freedmen's Bureau Records to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The index was compiled during the past year by 25,000 volunteers assembled by FamilySearch International, a nonprofit genealogical organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Mormon apostle D. Todd Christofferson presented the index to museum founding director Lonnie Bunch on a flash drive.
"For the first time in history," Christofferson told an assembled gathering, "African-Americans can now bridge the gap between freedom and slavery and reunite — on paper — families that were once torn apart by slavery."
The index brings order to papers produced by the Freedmen's Bureau, which the War Department established in 1865 to help the 4 million newly freed slaves and many impoverished Southern whites make it through post-Civil War Reconstruction.
In doing so, FamilySearch's team also uncovered and indexed the names of 1,781,463 people found in marriage and hospital registers, education efforts, census lists, labor contracts and apprenticeship lists.
"This is a new day for Afro-American genealogy," said Thom Reed, the FamilySearch project manager who spent much of the past year training volunteers across the U.S. and Canada.
"We used to be hindered by the '1870 brick wall.' For many genealogists, they can trace their families back to there and that's where the well runs dry," he said. "We've broken through that wall and now it's overflowing. This is the largest collection of records that impact the African-American population today. It changes the game."
Tamu Smith, an African-American Mormon and author, said that making these records accessible is invaluable to both blacks and whites in advancing historical knowledge of this pivotal time.
It will clearly allow some African-Americans to reunite their ancestors in a way, re-establishing family ties broken by owners who sold slaves without regard for their connections.
"Those families never stopped looking for their children. Children never stopped looking for their parents, who were parceled off to the highest bidder," Smith said. "I can tell you that for somebody interested in knowing who my family is, this is a big deal."
The information comes from the handwritten notes of the U.S. Army officers who ran the Freedmen's Bureau (technically the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands) in 15 states and the District of Columbia for seven years after the Civil War.
On its website, the National Archives said the bureau's records "present the genealogist and social historians with an unequaled wealth of information" about matters as varied as issuing food and clothing, investigating racial confrontations, settling freedmen on abandoned or confiscated lands and establishing schools.
And that was before the LDS Church supplied the database index.
To fill in that critical gap, Reed's team at FamilySearch attracted volunteers from the 36 chapters of the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society, black colleges and churches, and "any organization that might have an interest."
Documents could be challenging to decipher, being handwritten and lacking consistency from one office to another.
But Reed found that "once people got into the records and reading the accounts, they wanted to do more. It caught fire."
Robert Burch, incoming president of Utah's Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society chapter, focused his research on the role of the Freedmen's Bureau in establishing nine colleges and universities after the war, including his alma mater, Talladega College in Alabama.
"The bureau helped secure deeds to property so people could build schools," Burch said, noting that his research also uncovered that two of his ancestors, brothers freed from slavery, bought land in Georgia with bureau assistance.
"Without the Freedmen's Bureau protecting them," he added, "it would not have been possible for them to do that."
Stories like Burch's inspire Reed, noting "that's the kind of amazing discoveries that happen. I'm hearing of thousands. We want more people to be aware of it."
So for his follow-up to what he calls "the most professionally rewarding experience of my life," Reed is developing a video to help novice researchers navigate the process.
He also will be highlighting Freedmen records at the RootsTech genealogical conference in February at the Salt Palace Convention Center.