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A Landmark African-American History Project Needs Your Help

If history is indeed written by the winners, then there’s a good chance everyone else will be left out. Black people have been here since before the United States even existed, but centuries of racism have erased their stories from historical records.

The Freedmen’s Bureau Project hopes to remedy that problem. The project is a joint initiative from FamilySearch International, 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. By this time next year, the project will have digitized more than 1.5 million documents—but they need your help.

The organization known as the Freedmen’s Bureau was created in the 1860s to help newly freed slaves. The Bureau worked to provide black Americans with all the necessities of daily life, including schools, hospitals, food, clothing, and community. In its seven years of existence, the Bureau amassed pages and pages of hand-written records documenting the details of marriages, military service, school enrollment, loans, and medical histories of as many as 4 million Americans. These records represent a wealth of information, information that could bring modern Americans vital information about their family histories.

But these records aren’t going to digitize themselves. The project is currently enrolling volunteer archivists to help input the records’ rich data in a searchable online database. As of this writing, project members and volunteers have completed inputting information from 26 percent of 1.5 million bureau records.

“Everyone needs to know who they are,” said Diane Watson, former U.S. Representative and U.S. Ambassador, in a press release [PDF]. “They need to know something about their background. They need to know the traits that run through the lines … The Freedmen’s Project will fill in those gaps.”

For more information and to find out how to volunteer, visit discoverfreedmen.org.

Header image via Freedmen's Bureau Project.

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By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
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History
Photo of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, Purchased for $10, Could Be Worth Millions
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Ben Wittick (1845–1903) - Brian Lebel's Old West Show and Auction, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Several years ago, Randy Guijarro paid $2 for a few old photographs he found in an antiques shop in Fresno, California. In 2015, it was determined that one of those photos—said to be the second verified picture ever found of Billy the Kid—could fetch the lucky thrifter as much as $5 million. That story now sounds familiar to Frank Abrams, a lawyer from North Carolina who purchased his own photo of the legendary outlaw at a flea market in 2011. It turns out that the tintype, which he paid $10 for, is thought to be an image of Billy and Pat Garrett (the sheriff who would eventually kill him) taken in 1880. Like Guijarro’s find, experts say Abrams’s photo could be worth millions.

The discovery is as much a surprise to Abrams as anyone. As The New York Times reports, what drew Abrams to the photo was the fact that it was a tintype, a metal photographic image that was popular in the Wild West. Abrams didn’t recognize any of the men in the image, but he liked it and hung it on a wall in his home, which is where it was when an Airbnb guest joked that it might be a photo of Jesse James. He wasn’t too far off.

Using Google as his main research tool, Abrams attempted to find out if there was any famous face in that photo, and quickly realized that it was Pat Garrett. According to The New York Times:

Then, Mr. Abrams began to wonder about the man in the back with the prominent Adam’s apple. He eventually showed the tintype to Robert Stahl, a retired professor at Arizona State University and an expert on Billy the Kid.

Mr. Stahl encouraged Mr. Abrams to show the image to experts.

William Dunniway, a tintype expert, said the photograph was almost certainly taken between 1875 and 1880. “Everything matches: the plate, the clothing, the firearm,” he said in a phone interview. Mr. Dunniway worked with a forensics expert, Kent Gibson, to conclude that Billy the Kid and Mr. Garrett were indeed pictured.

Abrams, who is a criminal defense lawyer, described the process of investigating the history of the photo as akin to “taking on the biggest case you could ever imagine.” And while he’s thrilled that his epic flea market find could produce a major monetary windfall, don’t expect to see the image hitting the auction block any time soon. 

"Other people, they want to speculate from here to kingdom come,” Abrams told The New York Times of how much the photo, which he has not yet had valuated, might be worth. “I don’t know what it’s worth. I love history. It’s a privilege to have something like this.”

[h/t: The New York Times]

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