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Bank records shed light for black genealogists

Bank records shed light for black genealogists

By MARIAN DOZIER Sun-Sentinel      
Web-posted: 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.
   It 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 black hole.
   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 their ancestry.
   "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 siblings.
   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.
   That changed 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 records.
   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. 1, 1865.
   "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 Lauderdale.
   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 too.
   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 ancestors.
   "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 together."
   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 said.
   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 County.
   Each will have a copy of the Freedman's Bank records for on-site use.
   Freedman's Bank 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 swindlers.
   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 55-volume collection.
   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 confidence.
   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 unindexed records.
   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 facilities.
   
   Marian Dozier can be reached at mdozier@sun-sentinel.com or 561-243-6643.
   

     

Copyright 2000, Sun-Sentinel Co. & South Florida Interactive, Inc.

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