SEARCH sponsors try again

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) reintroduced legislation that would fund a so-called Servitude and Emancipation Archival Research Clearinghouse (SEARCH) in the National Archives and Records Administration.

The SEARCH Act would create a national database of black citizens’ records, allowing research of family trees in a centralized system.

"It's extremely difficult for African Americans to research their genealogy due to the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws," said Brian Richardson, a spokesman for Landrieu.

In the past, some collections of birth registrations, jury duty records, school records and other pertinent documents segregated lists of black participants or did not preserve any such inventories. Discrepancies occurred between records before and after the Civil War.

Many historical records of blacks do not exist or are not in the same format as other citizens' documents, Richardson added. For example, researchers would have difficulty finding military registrations of famous Buffalo Soldiers because they would have to search a separate U.S. Colored Troops index and not the U.S. Military Regiment archives. In South Carolina, some telephone directories extracted blacks from the main alphabetized section and put them in the back of the book.

The legislation provides $5 million to state universities to catalog records locally and $5 million to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission for a national database. However, the existence of the records commission itself is threatened; President Bush's proposed 2006 budget would eliminate all funding for the organization.

Archivists and historians nationwide have mounted a campaign to stop the dismantling of the NARA’s grants program, which is responsible for electronic records research. Last week, a House appropriations bill pledged some relief, including $5.5 million total for grants and $2 million for administrative costs.

But archivists say NHPRC will not be able to operate SEARCH or any other project without more money.

"What NHPRC has now is woefully inadequate," said Kathleen D. Roe, president of the Council of State Historical Records Coordinators. "Something like the SEARCH is a really good idea. The issue is funding."

The bill’s $5 million allocation would not be enough to sustain the effort, Roe said. "That would be a good start, but it would take a number of years to accomplish," Roe said.

Cummings' bill was referred to the House Government Reform Committee, while Landrieu's bill was sent to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Last year, the SEARCH Act passed in the Senate but died in the House, where a subcommittee failed to act on the legislation.

The bills were reintroduced last week to coincide with the annual celebration of Juneteenth, a day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States.

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