Historic Hosanna School Museum joins Smithsonian transcription project centered on the African American experience during the Reconstruction era

By Megan Sayles, AFRO Business Writer,
Report for America Corps Member,

The Hosanna School Museum, a former Freedmen’s Bureau school located in Harford County, recently partnered with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to participate in a transcription project of more than 1.5 million images files from the Freedmen’s Bureau records. 

The Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project aims to recount African Americans’ transition from slavery to freedom and citizenship in the Reconstruction era after the American Civil War. 

“This is a misunderstood period in American history,” said Dr. Iris Leigh Barnes, executive director of the Hosanna School Museum. “This is a time when African Americans are first given freedom and then also those freedoms are taken away in many ways. We get to see the growth period, the adjustment period, and we get to see resilience against all odds.” 

The records being transcribed for the project identify the names of hundreds of thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans and refugees, which Barnes said could be invaluable to Black families and individuals who are trying to trace their genealogy. 

With free online access to the transcribed records, which will be keyword searchable, people can uncover first-hand accounts of their ancestors. 

One narrative discovered in the records delineated the origins of the Hosanna School in Darlington, Maryland.

In 1865, Edmonia Highgate, a daughter of freed slaves and a New York native, held her first class for newly freed African Americans at the site. Highgate did not remain at the school for long, and soon, Mary Watson took over the helm. 

Watson was instrumental in obtaining support from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was created by Congress in 1865 to help formerly enslaved African Americans become self-sufficient and transition into citizenship. 

The bureau ultimately provided lumber for the construction of a two-story frame schoolhouse, community meeting place and a church, and the school continued serving African American children until 1945. 

Iris Leigh Barnes is the executive director of the Hosanna School Museum, an erected Freedmen’s Bureau school in Darlington, Maryland. Recently, the museum partnered with the National Museum of African American History and Culture for a transcription project that recounts African Americans’ transition from freedom to slavery.

“A lot of African Americans were attacked, schools were burned down and churches burned down because they were just trying to get an education,” said Barnes. 

The new collaboration between the Hosanna School Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture is not the first effort of its kind. 

In April, as part of the Freedmen’s Bureau 2022 Transcribe -a-Thon, Immersing Ourselves in the Stories and Spaces of Black Education, individuals had the opportunity to enter a 3D virtual reality space, designed by the Virtual Reality Collaboration Lab, to personally explore the history of the Hosanna School Museum. 

Barnes hopes that the Freedmen’s Bureau Transcription Project helps give people a more accurate depiction of the African American experience following the Emancipation Proclamation and end of the civil war. 

“When we look at these records, we see the leadership of African Americans taking their lives into their own hands,” said Barnes. 

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