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Online project will digitize more than 200,000 records of free blacks after slavery

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Twenty-four years removed from slavery in rural Virginia, Hawkins Wilson had established himself as a respected Texas minister. But there was something missing from his life as a free man: the mother and sisters he left behind.

``I am anxious to learn about my sisters, from whom I have been separated too many years,'' Wilson wrote to the Freedmen's Bureau in Richmond. ``I am in hopes that they are still living.''

Records the Freedmen's Bureau used to reconnect families like Wilson's, from battered work contracts to bank forms, will be placed online in part of a new project linking modern day blacks with their ancestors.

The Virginia Freedmen Project plans to digitize more than 200,000 images collected by the Richmond bureau, one of dozens of offices established throughout the South to help former slaves adjust to free life.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine on Thursday unveiled the project and a state marker near the site where the bureau once stood in downtown Richmond.

``This is the equivalent for African Americans of Ellis Island's records being put up,'' said Kaine, who was joined by Mayor L. Douglas Wilder, the nation's first elected black governor and a grandson of slaves.

Researchers will eventually transfer data from all of the southern states to an online database, said Wayne Metcalfe, vice president of the Genealogical Society of Utah, a partner in the project.

Records from Virginia should be ready to go online by the middle of next year, Metcalfe said.

``It was one of the larger states and one of the most complete collections available,'' he said. ``It's a gold mine, as far as a genealogist is concerned.''

About a half-million slaves were left to establish a new life following emancipation, Metcalfe said.

Established in 1865, the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, also called the Freedmen's Bureau, helped former slaves find clothes, food and jobs.

Bureaus kept meticulous records, documenting marriages and work histories. Those records will be scanned from microfilm and compiled into an electronic index families will eventually be able to access, Metcalfe said.

Freedmen's Bureaus disappeared by the 1870s, but not before they became an invaluable resource to people like Wilson.

In a letter dated May 11, 1867, he offered bureau officials details of his family's old home in Caroline County, and urged them to pass along a note to his sister, Jane.

``Your little brother Hawkins is trying to find out where you are and where his poor old mother is,'' reads the letter, which will be included in the database. ``Your advice to me to meet you in Heaven has never (lapsed) from my mind.''

Historians don't know if he ever found his family.
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