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Freedman's Bank: Boosting research for African-Americans

The story of the Freedman's Bank is a history of hope-turned-disappointment for tens of thousands of African-Americans.

Darius Gray, center, and Marie Taylor, who initiated automating the Freedman's Bank records, speak with Elder Cecil O. Samuelson of the Seventy at press conference.
Darius Gray, center, and Marie Taylor, who initiated automating the Freedman's Bank records, speak with Elder Cecil O. Samuelson of the Seventy at press conference. Photo: Photo by Jason Olson

The Washington D.C.-based bank was chartered in 1865 with designs of offering financial freedom to legions of blacks, including many once victimized by slavery. An estimated 70,000 customers opened and closed accounts at Freedman's Bank, with deposits totaling more than $57 million, said Reginald Washington of the National Archives and Records Administration.

Nine years later the bank collapsed. Mismanagement and outright fraud ruined the institution and the dreams of many.

The spirit of Freedman's Bank has been reopened.

Millions of African-Americans will now be able to better connect with their ancestors via a family history research CD released Feb. 26 by the Church. The CD contains the Freedman's Bank deposit records, providing a user-friendly database documenting several generations of African-Americans immediately after the American Civil War.

The release of the CD was announced by Church leaders in Salt Lake City during a teleconference with Washington D.C. News conferences were also held in 11 other cities: Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Denver, Houston, Dallas, Raleigh, Miami and St. Louis.

"I think it will be a wonderful tool," said Michael Rice, a black member from Santa Rosa, Calif. "I'm excited about anything that will benefit genealogical research, especially for African-Americans."

The Freedman's Bank Records CD is the culmination of an 11-year project started at the Family and Church History Department in Salt Lake City. Marie Taylor, a Church employee, was introduced to microfilms of the bank's original records. She knew she had something important.

"When I discovered the Freedman's Bank records I envisioned African-Americans breaking the chains of slavery and forging the bonds of families," she said. "I am glad the African-American community has accepted this gift and I hope they will use it to bring their families together — that is what it is all about."

Despite Freedman's Bank's tragic financial history, its legacy of record keeping remains priceless. An estimated 10 million African-Americans living today have ancestors who deposited money in Freedman's Bank. Bank workers recorded the names and family relationships of account holders in an effort to establish bank patrons' identities. In doing so, they created the largest single repository of lineage-linked African-American records thought to exist, according Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"The release of the Freedman's Bank records is a significant first step towards making valuable records available for African-Americans searching for their roots," he said. "We hope that in the coming years, that more emphasis will be placed on the growing need for such resources."

Family history researchers have long known about the Freedman Bank records. The originals are preserved in the National Archives. But the data has been essentially useless because it lacked effective and reliable indexes. Intrigued by the challenge, Sister Taylor secured the assistance of her friend, Darius Gray, and began the Freedman's Bank Records project.

The Church-supported project itself enjoys a rich history. The day-to-day tasks of extracting, linking and automating the 480,000 names contained in the bank records were performed by a team of inmates from the Utah State Prison. Approximately 550 prisoners donated their time to the project, working in a unique, three-room facility filled with microfilm and microfiche readers and 30 computer stations.

"The inmates contributed their free time to the project," said Elder Eyring. "Theirs was a freewill gift — not a prison work assignment. The project was just one of many volunteer tasks the prisoners have worked on over the years. To them we owe our thanks."

Their efforts, along with the work of many others from the Family and Church History Department, will long be a blessing for members and others. Brother Rice and his family have already completed their four-generation family research. Still, he's excited about having a new, inexpensive genealogical resource.

"It's the most important work we can do," said Brother Rice, a bishopric member of the Brush Creek Ward of the Santa Rosa California Stake.

Brother Rice was introduced to family history research many years ago while a student at BYU. Genealogy can be challenging for African-Americans, he notes — particularly for descendants of slaves whose holders maintained shoddy family records. Besides providing an invaluable research tool, Brother Rice said the Freedman's Bank Records CD reaffirms the Church's mission of inclusiveness.

"Linking the eternal family unit is one of the most important and sacred teachings for us in the Church," Elder Eyring said. "It is our hope that the Freedman's Bank records CD will not only be a valuable resource for African-Americans, but also a way to once again link those families so long and tragically separated."

While the CD offers an invaluable database of names and deposit accounts, the value of the extracted records goes far beyond old bank account information.

"This is not about records, but about people," Brother Gray said.

The CD is available at cost for $6.50. It can be ordered via the Internet at www.familysearch.org, or by calling Church distribution centers at (800) 537-5971 and asking for item #50120.

E-mail: [email protected]

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