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Freedman's Bank project left an impact on inmates

UTAH STATE PRISON, DRAPER, Utah — Elders D. Todd Christofferson, Charles A. Didier and Spencer J. Condie of the Seventy visited the Utah State Prison March 15 to say thanks in person to the inmates who extracted the information used to create the new Freedman's Bank CD.

Extracting the information from microfilm for computer was an 11-year project for the inmates. The microfilm contains mid-19th century family records of 480,000 black Americans, many of them freed slaves, who had savings at the Freedmans Bank. (Please see p. 3, Church News, March 3, 2001.)

Elder Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy is the executive director of the Church and Family History Department, and Elders Didier and Condie of the Seventy are assistant executive directors. Richard E. Turley Jr., managing director, and Wayne J. Metcalfe, director of field services, also attended. Bishop Jeffrey L. King of the Wasatch Branch conducted an hour long service held in the interdenominational prison chapel. Warden Clint S. Friel and family history center director Jay Garrett also spoke.

Elder Christofferson described the "prompt, spontaneous and sustained applause" given for inmates on Feb. 26 by members of the black community at a luncheon following a news conference announcing the Freedman's Bank CD.

"I wish you could have heard [the applause]," Elder Christofferson continued. "It was from their hearts. On their behalf we bring you this expression of goodwill."

He said the CD, which was announced in multiple-press conferences around the United States, received news coverage throughout North America and in Europe and Japan, and generated requests for CDs that have now reached 30,000. Most requests are from members of the black community. "The joy and gratitude they express has been overwhelming to me," Elder Christofferson said, adding that never in his experience has the department had a release that has evoked such emotion.

"We have had people literally weep on the phone as they ordered the CD and want to know who we are," he said. "The gratitude has been astonishing."

He told of one recipient who said, "The black community has an insatiable thirst for family history, and [the Church] has given us the well to satisfy that thirst."

Elder Christofferson commented, "There is a desperate, deep desire on the part of all of us to know where we came from, where we fit in our places and in our heritage. There is some comfort we feel in a commitment to be better knowing that the sacrifices of the past are responsible for our positions in the present."

An inmate group leader who spoke at the service said the work blessed those who took part in it.

"When we started this project, I had no idea of the impact the Freedman's Bank records would have on me and the other inmates," he said. He told, with emotion, of extracting information of fathers who were sold, mothers who were traded and brothers who were shot to death. One record told of a baby traded shortly after her birth for field equipment. The mother did not even have a chance to name the baby.

The inmate said that other inmates were also emotional as they did this work. He told of one inmate who began to weep while doing extraction. "He said, 'I cannot believe the way these people have been treated.' I reached out to comfort him and I laid my hand on his shoulder and noticed a tattoo: KKK."

He said that inmates have special empathy for those who were in slavery. In prison, inmates come to know that the sound of rattling keys means confinement. Slaves also learned to listen for the sound of rattling keys, he suggested. "I'll bet that every time they heard the sound of keys coming, it was time to hand some people over, a husband to be separated from his wife. . . ."

He concluded, "How blessed we were to be able to do this work," and promised other inmates in attendance that if they volunteer in family history work that more peace would come into their lives.

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