Bank records shed light for black genealogists
Bank records shed light for black genealogists
By MARIAN DOZIER
12:25 a.m. Feb. 28, 2001
Blacks doing genealogical research have inevitably run into
the "black hole" of slavery: a point when their ancestry just stops
and no more information is available.
happened to Percy Alexander.
Alexander, of Boca
Raton, began in 1990 to research his maternal roots, starting with
his great-grandmother. By the end of the decade, working off and on,
he had found Prissy, his great-great-great-grandmother -- born a
slave. That's as far as he got.
He had hit the
Now the Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints -- the Mormons -- has produced an extraordinary
shaft of light: the depository records of the Freedman's Bank, a
19th century savings institution created by the U.S. government for
former slaves. The records offer data on 480,000 former slaves who
banked at one of the Freedman's branches along the Eastern Seaboard.
The church on Monday announced the release of
the records on a CD-ROM.
It is now conceivable
to find three generations of the Prissy McMillan family -- her
parents, her offspring and McMillan herself -- if any of them opened
an account at the bank.
It is therefore
possible for up to 10 million other descendants of the slave
depositors -- one-third of today's U.S. black population -- to trace
"I have my fingers crossed for
this," Alexander said. "This is a period of time I'm really
interested in -- on both sides of my family -- where I don't really
know where they were. It's an exciting period to research, but the
details are really sketchy."
The bank records
contain signatures of thousands of depositors, penned when accounts
were opened. Also included is personal information such as age,
birthplace, residence, the plantation where the depositor was
raised, name of former master or mistress, occupation, employer and
names of spouses, children, parents and
All of this information had been on
file at the National Archives and Records Administration, but little
use had been made of it because it hadn't been effectively organized
for research, the Mormons said.
after an employee of the church's Family History Center headquarters
in Salt Lake City began indexing them in 1989. The task took 11
years, but the result is easy access to what is being called the
largest single repository of lineage-linked African-American
Before this link, blacks would have
to rely on oral history, family Bibles and marriage or death records
to find enslaved ancestors, and usually none of it existed. U.S.
Census data didn't start recording the names of blacks until 1870 --
five years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed blacks on Jan.
"Prior to that, there were 'slave
schedules' in 1850 and 1860 that would only list the owner's name
and how many slaves he had, their sex, their age, their complexion
-- but not their names," said Easter Wilcher, assistant director of
the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort
That's how Alexander found Prissy,
in the slave census of 1860 on a small plantation in Wakulla County,
Fla. Just by chance, her owner -- and the father of her three
children listed as "mulatto" -- had listed her name
Genealogical research is a hallmark of the
LDS church, which has records on more than 1 billion names digitized
in its computer files.
How many on microfilm?
"Gadzillions," said Dave Proulx, director of the Family History
Center in Plantation.
The church has been
gathering genealogy information since 1894. Members are obliged by
Latter-day scripture to seek their
"One of our fundamental beliefs is
that families will be together forever -- even in death," Proulx
said. "It's not 'till death do us part.' We expect to spend eternity
The church is an equal-opportunity
research provider. Though blacks couldn't hold ministry positions
until 1978, they were always church members and they have that
scriptural responsibility, as well, Proulx
There is an international network of
Family History Centers operated by the church, including those in
Palm Beach Gardens, Lake Clark Shores, Boca Raton and Belle Glade in
Palm Beach County, and in Coral Springs and Plantation in Broward
Each will have a copy of the Freedman's
Bank records for on-site use.
Savings and Trust Co. was chartered in 1865 as a "benevolent"
banking institution to help former slaves and black soldiers who had
fought in the Civil War as they moved from bondage to freedom.
The goal, according to the abolitionists,
business leaders and philanthropists who created the bank's outline,
was to teach ex-slaves money-management skills and keep them from
squandering their pay while providing a safe place from
The bank eventually had 37 branches
in Washington, D.C., and 17 states, including one in Tallahassee.
Records from 29 of those branches survive and are included in the
Mismanagement, fraud and
changes to its charter, among other things, caused the bank's
collapse in 1874 -- but not before 70,000 depositors had put $57
million into its coffers. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass was made
president months before the bank closed, in an effort to maintain
Some depositors received a portion
of their savings. Most got nothing and their descendants spent three
decades petitioning Congress to no avail. The federal government did
not protect the bank's deposits.
"It was an
economic nightmare," said Reginald Washington, a researcher at the
National Archives and Records Administration, which had held the
The Freedman's Bank
Records CD-ROM is available for $6.50. It can be ordered over the
Internet at www.familysearch.org or by calling LDS church
distribution centers at 800-537-5971. Local Family History Centers
will also have copies for use at their
can be reached at email@example.com or
Copyright 2000, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive,