A Data Bank of African-American Heritage
On Oct. 2, 1867, Charles Miller Coleman, 56, a former slave, opened an account at the Huntsville (Ala.) branch of Freedman's Bank Savings & Trust Co. On his application, Coleman, a planter whose residence was "just over fence" from the Baptist Church, listed the names of his wife, Susan, his six children, six brothers (one dead), and two sisters. All Coleman's siblings were living in Virginia, "but Aleck who was sold away first," according to the application.
The Coleman listing, along with the names of 480,000 other African-American soldiers and former slaves connected with Freedman's Bank, is perhaps the richest trove of information ever for blacks seeking to learn more about their heritage. The information is already available to genealogical researchers on a searchable CD, through the Family & Church History Dept. of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and should be posted before the end of the year on the church's lineage database, www.FamilySearch.org. Church genealogical officials, who have worked on the Freedman's Bank names for 11 years, say the records make up the largest single database of lineage-linked African Americans in the world and estimate that up to 10 million descendents of Freedman's Bank depositors are living today.
Headquartered in Washington, D.C., Freedman's Bank was chartered in 1865, the year the Civil War ended, to help freed slaves and black soldiers manage their money. Some 70,000 opened accounts. On their applications, generally filled out by bank personnel since slaves were forbidden to read or write, the depositors listed not only their names, ages, occupations, and addresses but also their place of birth and military units. Some identified the plantations on which they were raised and even gave the names of their former owners. Charles Coleman's application noted he hadn't seen his parents in 35 years.
Over a 12-year period, some $57 million was deposited in the bank's 37 branches in 17 states and the District of Columbia. The government was concerned that without a safe repository for their money, African Americans would be cheated and robbed of their earnings. Instead, depositors lost their money when Freedman's Bank collapsed in 1874, due to fraud and mismanagement.
Freedman's Bank records, which were microfilmed years ago, have been available to researchers through the National Archives but were of little value since they weren't organized and indexed. Then in 1989, Marie Taylor, an employee of the LDS church's history department, discovered the microfilms and set up a program to add them to the church's genealogical database in Salt Lake City, the world's largest repository of genealogical information.
Genealogy is important to Mormons, who believe families don't end after death. But they also believe sacraments that bind families together, such as baptism, must be done on earth. So Mormons search for ancestors who never went through the ceremonies and then stand in as proxies in temple rituals. While African Americans have been members of the church since the 1830s, black men weren't admitted to the priesthood until 1978. The church's genealogical records, which are open to everyone, include some 2 billion names, with about 50 million added each year. About a third are available on the Web site, which averages 9 million hits a day.
To organize the Freedman's Bank records, the church enlisted the help of some 550 inmate volunteers at Utah State Prison, who began by extracting names from the records and recording them on index cards. The names were computerized, then cross-referenced by family members -- necessary because at the time the accounts were opened, many of the former slaves hadn't yet taken surnames. The inmate-researchers supplemented the Freedman's Bank data with information from the 1870 U.S. federal census, provided by the church.
The Freedman's Bank Records CD is available on the Internet at the FamilySearch site or by calling the church distribution center at 800 537-5971 and asking for item #50120. The cost is $6.50.
By Sandra Dallas in Denver