05:03 AM

Rural Digitization Project Sheds Rich Light on African-American Lives

In rural communities of eastern Virginia, the obscure stories of thousands of deceased African Americans are finding their way to the Internet. The Virginia African-American Funeral Programs project began five years ago as a collaborative initiative between FamilySearch and the Middle Peninsula African-American Genealogical and Historical Society of Virginia (MPAAGHS). Over 10,000 funeral programs were digitized, and over 200,000 names of the deceased persons and their families and friends mentioned in the programs were linked by volunteers and published in a free searchable database at FamilySearch.org.

“Funeral programs are a veritable treasure trove of family history information because they provide such a wealth of information about the deceased,” said Bessida Cauthorne White, president of MPAAGHS. A typical funeral program includes birth and death dates and places and the names of parents, spouse, children, and other relatives. The biographies included on most of the programs are mini-histories that add a glimpse of the decedent’s personality by disclosing schools attended, work history, church and organization affiliation, hobbies, and accomplishments. Funeral programs may contain multiple photographs of the deceased and family members.

“We often use the printed copies of the funeral programs to answer family history inquiries,” said White. “To be able to finally search the programs electronically will be tremendous.”

White explained that years ago it was not always easy for African Americans to get their obituaries published in newspapers. In contemporary times, while many African Americans do submit obituaries to newspapers, the charges for publication can limit the length of the obituary. “Funeral programs don’t have those limitations. You get a much richer picture of the deceased person” White commented.

To search the free online database, go to FamilySearch.org.

FamilySearch has published over three billion historical records online in free collections from over 100 countries. It continues to digitize and publish about 400 million new records online for free each year.

White says that MPAAGHS is working with FamilySearch to begin the next round of the Virginia African-American Funeral Programs project. Those interested in having their funeral programs included in the next phase of the project should contact MPAAGHS (Contact: 804-758-5163; mpaaghs.va@gmail.com).