Our ancestors are calling to us. They want us to find them. —Floyd Riley
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.
"The release of the Freedman's Bank records is a significant step towards making valuable records available for African-Americans searching for their roots," said President Henry B. Eyring, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. "We hope that in coming years more emphasis will be placed on the growing need for such resources."
Eleven years later
Today the Freedman's Bank records are easily accessed in public libraries and on a variety of genealogical websites.
The LDS Church's free website, FamilySearch.org, updated the records as recently as 2010. Search "Freed" under FamilySearch's all historical record collections and you will find more than 842,200 additional records among the Freedmen's Bureau Marriages, 1815-1869, and Freedmen's Bureau Letters or Correspondence, 1865-1872.
From May to December 2011, more than 5,100 people accessed the Freedman's Bank records on FamilySearch.org, according to James L. Ison, a FamilySearch manager. That calculates out to an average of approximately 550 visitors per month.
"It's affecting lives around the country," said Gray, who travels from one coast to another presenting at genealogical conferences. "There is significant involvement by the African-American community in family history and it's growing."
More African-American records are emerging. A historical society in Virginia, where slavery began in the American colonies in the early 1600s, recently discovered the identities of 3,200 slaves from unpublished private documents. The "Unknown No Longer: A Database of Virginia Slave Names" website is now an online resource, according to CNN."
Another website, afrigeneas.com, provides a wealth of African-American historical information.
A recent article on Buffalonews.com featured several African-American genealogy success stories.
Many are intimidated by the required detective work, Riley said, but others are proving it can be done.
"Our ancestors are calling to us. They want us to find them," said Riley, a retired educator and administrator. "They are there; it's just a matter of finding the proper record to locate them. But be patient; it's not going to happen overnight."
"We shouldn't give up; we should keep looking," she said. "When your ancestors are ready to be found, they will make themselves known. They are not just a name on a piece of paper."
Knowing your heritage
Gray's family history journey began around 1987 with a phone call and a piece of paper. He was invited by a friend to visit the Family History Library and called his mother to verify his father's birth date. His mother told him she had found a piece of paper that not only had information about his father, but also contained birth and death dates of other family members, and was in the handwriting of his father, who had been dead for decades. Gray asked his mother where she found it, because he couldn't recall seeing it before. She told him she didn't know, that "it just showed up."
"I don't think it just happened. I like to think of angels at work," Gray said. "Making that paper available was the seed for me. It's been a blessing. I've seen others have that seed come to them and it opens a door."
Gray doesn't have to go back too far to find the difficult times. His grandfather, James Lewis Gray, was born a slave in Missouri in 1859. But knowing his heritage gives Gray a sense of pride. He says it's important to teach this lesson to young people.
"I know who I am and I'm proud of what we have contributed to this nation," he said. "Doing genealogy and family history isn't about names and dates, it's about the people and their lives. It's about connecting families."
More than a decade later, Gray and others agree Freedman's Bank records are still helping individuals to accomplish that.