Jun 11, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Ancestry.com uses AI to boost Black family trees

Formerly enslaved Black Americans gather for a reunion in 1917.

Formerly enslaved Black Americans gather for a reunion in 1917. Photo: Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Ancestry.com will release a new collection of newspaper records related to enslaved people in the U.S. that will be searchable thanks to AI, the company announced Tuesday.

Why it matters: The new records show how enslaved people were bought and sold or how some tried to escape, helping Black Americans locate the painful pasts of individual ancestors.

The big picture: The release comes as more states grapple with how to address historic sites connected to slavery and as more Black Americans try to uncover their families' genealogical histories.

  • For Juneteenth this year, Axios will explore how the new Juneteenth federal holiday is helping the nation confront its past with enslavement and how new records and sites are reshaping that story.

Zoom in: This week, Ancestry is making available newspaper records from before 1870 connected to more than 183,000 enslaved people, Nicka Sewell-Smith, Ancestry's senior story producer and genealogist, tells Axios.

  • Many of these original newspaper articles contain never-before-seen information about enslaved individuals in communities where courthouse and community records were otherwise destroyed or lost.
  • The information will include names, ages, physical descriptions and locations, and sensitive materials related to the buying and selling of enslaved people and ads seeking the return of those who escaped.
  • The collection moves the exploration of family history from theories about having an ancestor who suffered under enslavement to finally finding them and naming them, Sewell-Smith said.
A sample of a record of an enslaved people's record on ancestry.com
A sample of a record of an enslaved person's record on ancestry.com shows he escaped with the help of Harriet Tubman and was later captured. Photo: Courtesy of ancestry.com

How it works: Users can visit Ancestry's new landing page dedicated to enslavement records and either search by name or explore a state with the most records.

  • AI will comb through the once-hard-to-search records of newspapers for names of enslaved people, connecting names in Ancestry's other databases of probate documents to piece together puzzles.
  • Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana will have some of the largest collections of records.
  • A blog post will help users navigate the site with a warning. "We're telling people upfront, listen, you're gonna you might see some stuff, some terms, some things that are going to jolt you," Sewell-Smith said.
  • Some records will show how Harriet Tubman helped some enslaved people escape north or offer clues that some may have tried to make a journey south to the Underground Railroad to Mexico.

The intrigue: This collection complements the more than 18 million records already available for free on Ancestry that document the lives of formerly enslaved or newly emancipated individuals.

  • This includes Freedmen's Bureau and Freedman's Bank records, select U.S. Federal Census records, and other documents.

Background: Other sites and universities have created websites of all newspapers with wanted ads of enslaved people escaping, but they've been hard to search or locate a family member.

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