On October 18–19, 2017, the Ontario Black History Society held an event themed “A Freedom Seeker’s Toronto.” The program focused on courageous individuals who risked their lives to escape to Toronto via the Underground Railroad in search of freedom. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was invited to provide an update on the Freedmen’s Bureau Project and assist participants in researching their ancestors online.
The keynote address was delivered by Karolyn Smardz Frost, author of Steal Away Home: One Woman’s Epic Flight to Freedom — And Her Long Road Back to the South. The book tells the extraordinary story of Cecelia Reynolds, a 15-year-old who escaped slavery to freedom in Toronto, Canada, in 1846.In her address,Smardz Frost related her compelling 10-year journey of researching and writing Reynolds’ story.
Representing the Freedmen’s Bureau Project was Sandra Pallin, national director of public affairs for the Church, who detailed the project and explained how to gain access to the public records. She explained, “We believe that families are forever, so we place great value in family history and connecting generations. For us and the partners, this project has been about connecting and strengthening families.”
Nikki Clarke, president of the Ontario Black History Society, said in her welcome remarks, “For us to move forward, it is important to learn about our past and know who we are.”
Lucky and Tammy Morse, full-time missionaries for the Church, staffed the Freedmen’s Bureau Project exhibit, where visitors could search for their ancestors by going to the website discoverfreedmen.org. The site is a newly indexed database of Freedmen’s Bureau records containing the names of nearly 1.8 million men, women and children who were freed after the Civil War.
The Freedmen’s Bureau was established in 1865 to help transition nearly four million African-Americans who had been emancipated at the end of the Civil War. Now that the images of the records have been indexed, millions have access to the names of their ancestors, allowing individuals to build their family trees and connect with their heritage.
Among other notable speakers at the event was the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first African-Canadian woman to be elected as a member of the Canadian House of Commons. Speaking of the Freedmen’s Bureau database, she said, “The information is incredible, and there is a treasure of information that we can work on, build on, and move together.”
An exhibit at the event showcased many artifacts that were found during a recent archeological excavation in downtown Toronto, which included Cecelia Reynolds’ home in the mid-1800s. Dr. Holly Martelle, an archeologist who led a team conducting the excavation, spoke of the many memorable artifacts that were found. She stated, “The uncovered archeological record adds further insights into existing storylines and offers completely new ones.”
Elder D. Todd Christofferson, a member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, speaking at the handover of the newly indexed Freedmen’s Bureau database at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, stated, “For the first time in history, African Americans can now bridge the gap between freedom and slavery and reunite their families — on paper — that were once torn apart by slavery” (“Church Presents Historic Freedmen’s Bureau Database to African American Museum,” Dec. 6, 2016).