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AFRICAN AMERICANS Binding Families Together
Freedman’s Bank was chartered in the mid-1800’s to offer financial freedom to African-Americans. Nearly 500,000 names are found on the records. An estimated 10 million African-Americans living today
By Dr. Greg Shepard
Published: Summer 2001
“Everyone has to have some identity. Take the young people of today who are trying so desperately to identify with something. Don’t you think that every child needs to know who his or her father is? These are questions that when answered will give them links back to who they are, and something they can be proud of instead of negative stereotypes. In general, everywhere that I go in the African-American community, people are concerned about their ancestors.”
--William Alex Haley, son of Roots author Alex Haley
It has recently come to my attention that the Freedman’s Bank records have been available in an easy to understand CD format. I urge all African-American coaches and athletes to take advantage of this tremendous resource. I exhort all coaches to share this information with your local African-American community. I do this because I believe we are all children of God and that we are all part of the same human family that deserves to be connected.
The Freedman’s Bank was a Washington D.C. bank that was chartered in 1865. Its purpose was to offer financial freedom to legions of blacks, including many victimized by slavery. An estimated 70,000 customers opened and closed accounts at Freedman’s Bank, with deposits totaling more than $57 million. Nine years later, the bank collapsed through mismanagement and fraud, ruining the dreams of their trusting customers.
Despite the 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 customers’ identities. In doing so, they created the largest single repository of lineage-linked, African-American records thought to exist.
Family history researchers have long known about the Freedman’s Bank records. The originals are preserved in the National Archives. But the data on microfilm has been essentially useless because it lacked effective and reliable indexes. The microfilm contains mid-19th century family records of 480,000 African-Americans.
Marie Taylor discovered these Freedman’s Bank records and envisioned African-Americans breaking the chains of slavery and forging the bonds of families. She put together an inspired plan for the daunting task of compiling all these records into a useable format. The day-to-day efforts 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 this project. They worked in a unique, three-room facility filled with microfilm and microfiche readers and 30 computer stations. After 11 years, the project was completed in the form of a CD of the Freedman’s Bank records. Another CD in the works which will be ready this year is the record of the 1880 census, which includes 6.5 million citizens of African ethnic origin. Eventually, the Freedman’s Bank records will be available online.
The CD was first released on February 26th of this year and documents several generations of African-Americans immediately after the American Civil War in a user-friendly database. When the CD was released, Charles Brewer, a member of the African-American Historical Genealogical Society, said, “This is going to revolutionize the African-American family history world.”
Darius Gray, who helped supervise the project said, “We can develop a personal glimpse into the lives of African-American families who lived immediately after the Civil War. As new depositors to Freedman’s Bank, 70,000 African-Americans had to establish their identities as part of the application process. This was no small task.”
In creating their identity, they listed their families and sometimes gave brief oral histories. For example, Charles Miller Coleman stated, “Have not seen parents in 35 years. Brothers Ben and Jack and Aleck and Moses (dead) and Robert and William. Sister Susan. Family all left in Va. But Aleck who was sold away first.”
Gray became emotional as he read these oral histories. “It is hard not to when you see a comment such as, ‘I never knew parents, was sold away, don’t know where brothers and sisters are, because I was sold away first.’ On the other hand, it lets you know how important family was because even in the hostile environment of slavery, people struggled to keep track of each other. They worked at it, they kept track of one another.”
Elder D. Todd Christofferson from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints headed this ambitious Freedman’s Bank project. He said that requests for CD’s have now reached over 30,000. Most requests are from the black community. Elder Christofferson said, “The joy and gratitude they express has been overwhelming to me. We have had people literally weep on the phone as they ordered the CD. The gratitude has been astonishing.
“There is a desperate, deep desire on the part of all of us to know where we came from, where we all fit in our places and in our heritage. There is some comfort in a commitment to be better, knowing that the sacrifices of the past are responsible for our positions in the present.”
An inmate leader said, “When we started this project, I had no idea the impact the Freedman’s Bank records would have on me and the other inmates.” This man 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 her baby.
The inmate also said that other inmates were emotional as they did their work. He told of one inmate who began to weep while doing extractions. He said, “I cannot believe the way these people have been treated.” The inmate leader reached out to comfort this crying co-inmate and laid his hand on his shoulder and noticed a tattoo: KKK.
The feelings of the inmates who did the work were expressed in a letter sent in 1997. Forty-seven inmates signed the following letter: “We anxiously await the completion of this database and hope that people everywhere will use it to search out their ancestors. For most do not realize what it is like to be in bondage. Again, we are thankful for being allowed to serve on this project and do so in the memory of our God, our freedom, our peace, our wives, our children and our ancestors.”
William Alex Haley concluded, “It is a lot of responsibility. When Roots first came out, I had to change my behavior. I had a family reputation to be aware of. Places I would have gone before without thinking about I began to think about. I thought, ‘This won’t look good for my family if I do this’ so it reined me in. It reined my children in. Knowing who you are and what responsibility you have towards your family forces your behavior to be consistent with your family values. It passes right down across generations.”
Joyce King, an African-American who writes for USA Today said, “We are not ‘niggers.’ It is not, in fact, OK for anyone - black or white - to use that filthy word or to ignore its meaning.” This was in response to a question often asked by whites why it is OK for black people to call each other “nigger” as an affectionate term or use the term behind closed doors.
“Nigger is a gut-wrenching word,” explains King, “with the power to haunt some and cripple others. It can’t be disdainful and incorrect only when people who ought to know better use it. It can’t be ugly when racists spew their rhetoric, but beautiful when someone we admire claims it.”
King gives her definition: divisive, vulgar, unnecessary, hurtful. It is not affectionate. Not funny.
When King went to school some white kids taunted her with the “nigger” word. “They didn’t know us but that was our name; it meant ugly, shiftless, inferior. Pretending to ignore them may have strengthened me externally, but it left me mentally scarred.”
Comedian Richard Pryor used the word often in his heyday with his stand-up routines. But, after a provocative trip to Africa, he vowed never to use it again. King suggests, “Some of us could sure stand to make a similar mental journey.” I also believe the same restraint should be used with the words “bitch” and “ho”.
African-Americans are not anything like the word “nigger” implies. African-Americans are all children of God with a precious family heritage. As we all are.
AN IDEA FOR SCHOOLS
I believe it would be a remarkable experience to include a Freedman’s Bank class in a school or church curriculum. Black students could explore their black heritage, write reports on their findings, and share their feelings. I also believe it would be a remarkable experience for students of other ethnic origins to study these records. I promise all that study about family heritages will experience a spiritual increase. May God bless all those who undertake this noble endeavor.
The Freedman’s Bank CD is available at a cost of $6.50. It can be ordered via the Internet at www.familysearch.org or by calling (800) 537-5971 and asking for item #50120.
Comedian Richard Pryor decided not to say “nigger” after a provocative trip to Africa.