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Out of the archive, into the world: NHC residents transcribe documents from the Wilmington Freedmen's Bureau Office

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This is the letter WHQR, along with NHC residents, worked to transcribe from the Wilmington Freedmen's Bureau Office.

On Saturday, New Hanover County residents worked virtually with representatives from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture, the NC African American Heritage Commission, and the State Library of North Carolina to transcribe documents from the former Freedmen’s Bureau Office in Wilmington. There are over ten thousand of these local records dating back from 1865 through 1869 — the challenge is making them more accessible to the public.

WHQR's Ben Schachtman talks with reporters Rachel Keith and Mattie Holloway about the experience of transcribing historical letters.

Congress established the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands after the Civil War to help newly freed Black Americans receive food, clothing, medical care, and access to legal services. The Bureau collected a massive archive of documents — but many are handwritten, making it difficult to catalog them or make them searchable (or even readable).

The documents range from certificates of marriage, claims for military service, Freedmen's Court files, or Census returns.

Kamilah Stinnett, a museum specialist with the Smithsonian, showed participants how to access the records -- and even walked them through one letter the Wilmington Office received.

Stinnett told residents during the virtual meeting, "...you just transcribe what you see all the way down the page.”

One participant started out, trying to read the letter: “One of my former slaves comes to me in the following trouble…”

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Stinnett leading the group through the transcription process.

It’s an 1868 letter (transcribed below) from a white man from Warsaw. In it, he’s asking the Bureau Superintendent for help on behalf of his former slave Adam. He wants the agency to help Adam bring back his daughter, Chany. According to the letter, she was “bound” to a Mrs. J.J. Davis who lived at Market and 6th Streets.

The letter isn’t clear whether the daughter was a slave or not, although coming so soon after Emancipation, it’s likely she was at one point. Even at the simple level of letters and words, transcribing the letters can be difficult — the handwriting, which some have uncharitably compared to 'chicken-scratch,' can be difficult to decipher. It's not uncommon for it to take more than one set of eyes on a letter before it's fully transcribed.

The letters can be emotionally difficult to read, as well. Residents shared some of the stories that they came across while transcribing. One person wrote about a little boy who was badly beaten; another wrote to the Bureau about her husband and child who died on a washed-out bridge in Sampson County.

While some of these stories can be hard to read, the Smithsonian staff said, it’s all part of creating a digital, searchable historical record of what happened in the Cape Fear region during Reconstruction. It’s also a way, they said, to discover one’s ancestors.

Stinnett of the Smithsonian said it’s a plus when residents of the Cape Fear region read and transcribe these documents. She said it’s easier for locals to pick up on abbreviations, slang, and family names. For example, it was a participant who said the abbreviation "Wil. Wel. R.R." stood for Wilmington Weldon Railroad.

To transcribe the Wilmington Office documents, you have to first sign-up for an account here.

FBTP NC Training.mp4

The above video explains how to get started with transcribing the Freedmen's Bureau papers.

Here is more information on the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center.

Here is one of the collections from the Wilmington Office.

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One of the Wilmington Office collections.

WHQR’s Rachel Keith and Mattie Holloway finished transcribing the letter about Adam and his daughter, Chany. The original letter is the main image for this story:

Turkey Creek Farm Near Warsaw NC

January 15th, 1868.

Supt. Bureau Freedmen R&AL

Wilmington N.C.

Dear Sir,

One of my former slaves comes to me in the following trouble: he bound one of his daughters to Mrs. J.J. Davis who lives at Market and 6th street in Grants Cottage for "support, clothing & education." The girl "Chany" her [wants?] has been [entered?] by evil minded negroes from the home thus provided for her, to her ruin. She is young and can be brought back to the path of virtue and industry, but Adam her Father is unable to bear the expenses of coming after her. Will you please have her taken up and sent to Adam by the Wil. Wel. R.R. [Wilmington and Weldon Railroad]

I am unable from my [?] to loan Adam any money, but as he will farm on my land this year, I will be responsible for any expenses within reason as a lien are his crops.

Very Respectfully W.E. Perice [?]