A decade later: Freedman's Bank still connecting families

Freedman's Bank records play a big role in connecting African-American families

Published: Thursday, Feb. 16 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

Don Harwell, president of the Genesis Group, at a lecture by Darius Gray on genealogy for African-Americans at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City in February 2010.

Jason Olson, Deseret News Archives

Editor's note: This article is part of a Black History Month series.

The cousins from New Jersey can still vividly recall a day two years ago when they found the name of a Florida plantation owner and unlocked a list of their slave ancestors from the 1850s.

"The feeling was indescribable, so emotional," Floyd Riley said. "It's a roller-coaster ride. What happens is you get this adrenaline rush. You are so excited you want to scream, 'I found them!'"

Riley and Shamele Jordan were in the quiet Family History Library, but it was difficult to refrain from high-fives and fist pumps after their long, toilsome search.

"We did a little yell. People came over and asked what we found. It was really super exciting," Jordan said. "African-Americans were considered property, bought and sold like cattle. That makes it very difficult to continue tracing your family during the Antebellum period. But we were able to find an ancestor. That feels like a triumph over the whole institution of slavery."

Discovering this lost branch of family history would not have been possible without Nancy Guiles, a name Jordan and Riley found in Freedman's Bank records.

More than a decade since its release, this database of post-Civil War-era documents covering several generations of African-Americans continues to open previously hidden doors in genealogy and family history research. It continues to connect families and bless lives.

William Alexander Haley, chairman of the Alex Haley Center and son of the late Alex Haley, was right in 2001 when he said Freedman's Bank records would be more than just historical records: "They may be the Rosetta Stone — the piece that allows you to go in and make the connection."

Opening the bank

In 1865, Freedman's Bank was chartered to offer financial services to tens of thousands of former slaves across the United States. An estimated 70,000 customers opened and closed accounts at the bank, with deposits totaling more than $57 million. Nine years later, mismanagement and fraud caused the bank to collapse.

But the records remained.

In 1989, Marie Taylor, an employee of the Family and Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, found the original microfilms of the records and recognized their significance.

"When I discovered Freedman's Bank records, I envisioned African-Americans breaking the chains of slavery and forging the bonds of families," she said in 2001.

With the help of Darius Gray, a friend and genealogist, and approximately 550 prisoners at the Utah State Prison, more than 480,000 names were extracted, linked and automated over the next 11 years. The inmates performed the work on their own time and agreed to pray together each day before going to work. Gray recalls how the prisoners came together to help each other decipher the names and ultimately accomplished the massive task.

Ultimately, it was the people in the records that meant the most to Gray and Taylor.

"A total of 484,083 (individuals) were uniquely identified in those records," Gray said. "I made a point of remembering the number because every soul matters to God."

When the project was completed, Taylor and Gray turned the records over to the LDS Church. The records include a depositor's birthplace, occupation and the names of parents and siblings, and even former owners. More than 10 million African-Americans living today have ancestors who deposited money in Freedman's Bank.

A CD database was released in February 2001, in honor of Black History month, and news conferences were held in 11 U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York City.

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