In a significant breakthrough for Black people looking to trace their ancestry back as a far as possible, a new website will allow millions of African-Americans to access previously unavailable records from a federal database with information dating all the way back to the days of slavery, The Guardian reports.

Since African-Americans were not included in the U.S. census count until 1870, those who had previously tried to trace their ancestry back beyond that point were unable to do so. Black people were also legally regarded as property rather than persons up until 1865 (no, we’re not kidding), so many of the records that will be made available through the new website are even handwritten.

Genealogy specialist Hollis Gentry recently elaborated on the announcement of the project with these comments:

“The records serve as a bridge to slavery and freedom. You can look at some of the original documents that were created at the time when these people were living. They are the earliest records detailing people who were formerly enslaved.

We get a sense of their voice, their dreams. I predict we’ll see millions of living people find living relatives they never knew existed. That will be a tremendous blessing and a wonderful, healing experience.”

Several organizations are currently working together to digitize the handwritten records and get the project finished, with an expected completion date of late 2016 that will coincide with the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

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