Historical documents like this one telling of the sale of people into slavery in the 1800s in Ascension Parish will be entered into databases by volunteers, to help make the search easier for people looking for their family’s history.

DONALDSONVILLE — Researching family history for African-Americans in Louisiana often means traveling to parish courthouses to pull old records of slavery, the conveyance documents that in jarringly neat handwriting detail the buying and selling of human beings.

There’s an effort underway that would make the process far easier. The River Road African American Museum in Donaldsonville has partnered with a genealogy website affiliated with the Mormon church for a pilot project that will use mostly volunteers to make slave conveyance records dating from 1777 to 1861 in Ascension Parish easier to find online.

At workshops being held this month, volunteers will learn how to find on the digital images of handwritten index pages, some dating back more than 200 years, and enter the information from those pages into FamilySearch to help guide readers to the full conveyance records.

Kathe Hambrick, founder of the River Road African American Museum and director of interpretation at the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen, said that such "indexing" projects will follow in Assumption, Iberville, Lafourche, Pointe Coupee, St. Mary, Terrebonne and West Baton Rouge parishes.

It's bringing the discussion of slavery and family history "into the 21st century," Hambrick said.

"The bottom line is there needs to be many, many more slave-related records made freely searchable," said Bruce Brand, the African Diaspora Experience Initiative team leader with FamilySearch International.

FamilySearch is a nonprofit organization sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, which has collected ancestry records since 1894. Mormon adherents use family records to perform religious rites by proxy for ancestors who have died. 

The current pilot program, called the Louisiana Genealogy Index-a-thon: Ascension Parish, started last summer when Hambrick and Angelique Bergeron, director of the West Baton Rouge Museum in Port Allen, visited historian, Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, a former professor of history at Michigan State University.

Top stories in Baton Rouge in your inbox

Twice daily we'll send you the day's biggest headlines. Sign up today.

Hall, the author of "Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the 18th Century," is a longtime adviser to the River Road African American Museum and West Baton Rouge Museum.  

"We went and it was a research trip for both of us," Hambrick said.

Hall, 89, urged the two museum leaders to find ways, even outside important museum exhibits, to make the historical documents available on a broad scale.

"Eventually, we should be able to do searches on databases all over the world and the U.S.," Hall said. 

Another organization involved in the pilot indexing project for Ascension Parish is Enslaved.Org, a coalition of eight universities working to build an interconnected system of online tools for the study of the historic slave trade.

The "Louisiana Genealogy Index-a-thon: Ascension Parish" project kicks off Saturday with a workshop from 10 a.m. to noon at the River Road African American Museum, 406 Charles St., Donaldsonville. Other workshops planned this month will be held:

  • Feb. 16, noon to 2 p.m., West Baton Rouge Museum, 845 N. Jefferson Ave., Port Allen.
  • Feb. 23, 10 a.m. to noon, Nicholls State University Computer Lab, 906 E. 1st Street, Thibodaux.

For more information, contact Tawnya Richardson, or call Peggy Mann at (225) 954-1397. Participants are asked to bring their own laptop.

Follow Ellyn Couvillion on Twitter, @EllynCouvillion.