Let My People Go: The Healing Stories Behind the Freedman Bank Records
by Maurine Jensen Proctor
Editors’ Note: The outpouring of gratitude from the African-American community following the recent release by the Church of a CD containing the indexed names of 484,000 former slaves was something nobody could have anticipated. Operators at the Distribution Center say people call in tears, to receive a copy of the CD that could unlock their past.
Darius Gray, an African-American who has been a member of the Church since 1964, learned something last year that he still hasn’t been able to come to terms with: the name of the slave-holder who “owned” his family on his maternal grandmother’s side. Ask him the name, and he can’t say it. Can’t yet let the name of the man whom his ancestors called “master” roll off his tongue-as if it were caught in his throat somewhere.
Darius wrote in his journal the day he learned the name, “What a day. So many feelings and so many tears. Why do they drop so freely? Is it joy or sorrow? Maybe in time that will be clear.”
Those of us who are not the descendants of slaves–who have never tried to piece together our ancestry from families who howled in pain as they were sold away from each other, or had no surname but one they borrowed from someone who claimed them as property, who cannot find their grandfather in a census because he was considered only a possession-cannot fully comprehend the sense of pain and loss of identity for African-Americans inherited from this bleak time in history. Nor can we completely understand Brother Gray’s tears when he learned the name of a slaveholder.
Frederick Douglass was elected president of Freedman’s Bank in 1874 in an effort to maintain the confidence of depositors when the bank was on the brink of collapse. Photo courtesy of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, National Park Service.
The only thing we are sure about is that there are no wounds too great for Divine healing and that ashes of mourning can be changed for beauty. The story behind the Freedman Bank records, a repository that contains over 480,000 names of several generations of former slaves, gives a hint of how the Lord can transform devastating failure into a healing blessing.
The Freedman Bank Records
The Freedman’s Bank Savings and Trust Company was chartered in 1865 with the primary object to assist former slaves and African-American soldiers with their new financial responsibilities. In theory, this bank was to be a permanent financial institution for savings deposits and provide a place, safe from swindlers, to deposit money. However, mismanagement and outright fraud caused the bank to collapse in 1874 adding another tragedy to the legacy of pain endured by many African Americans. Bank deposits totaling more than $57 million were lost and dreams dashed.
Freedman’s Bank records contained personal and family information about the depositor. Some records included names of former owners and the plantation where the depositor had lived. Photo courtesy of the United States Department of the Treasury, Office of the Curator.
Reginald Washington of the National Archives and Records Administration said, “An idea that began as a well-meaning experiment in philanthropy had turned into an economic nightmare for tens of thousands of African Americans.”
What remained when the Freedman Bank dried up was the extensive records of the depositors, including names of family members such as spouse, children, parents siblings, in-laws, and other relatives. In some cases oral histories were taken. In particular, remarks in many of the records documented family relationships and relatives who were sold into slavery to other locations.
For the 8 to 10 million Americans who have ancestors whose names are recorded in the records of the Freedman Bank, these records cast a light into the mystery of their ancestry. Or as William Alexander Haley, chairman of the Alex Haley Center, said, “The Freedman’s Bank records…may be the Rosetta Stone-the piece that allows you to go in and make the connection.”
The Freedman’s Bank headquarters was an elegant brownstone building located in Washington, D.C. The bank served 37 branch offices in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Photo courtesy of the United States Department of the Treasury, Office of the Curator.
Marie Taylor’s Search
Still before the records were extracted and computerized into a searchable database, the Freedman Bank information was more like unreadable ancient hieroglyphs. The information was there, but not easily accessible.
Then along came Marie Taylor. She was working at KBYU when they were first proposing the “Ancestors” series, and the woman in charge of project grants at the Public Broadcasting System believed erroneously that there would be no audience for a genealogy series. To better acquaint her with the power of genealogy, KBYU decided to present her with her own genealogy records. Marie was assigned to the job, but it was tougher than she could imagine because the woman was African-American.
“I began to think she had made up what she told me, because I couldn’t find her information anywhere,” said Marie, “but in extensive checking of sources I came upon references to the Freedman Bank records, and realized we had copies of them on film at the Church’s Family History Center. I went to the drawers in the library and pulled out the records for Huntsville, Alabama and realized it showed not only the depositors’ names, but their family connections.”
Marie completed the genealogy record for the woman at PBS who was so moved, she agreed to help fund a genealogy program, and Marie was left with a lingering feeling about the Freedman Bank records. ‘Here,” she said, “was a record that put all those families together who had been torn apart by slavery. I felt this had to come out. I didn’t know how, but it had to be extracted.”
Freedman’s Bank was an outgrowth of a plan to provide banking services to African Americans drafted during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A Staggering Undertaking
The project was huge, and Marie invited Darius Gray to join her in finding a way to facilitate the extraction and indexing of the information. What both of them felt from the beginning was opposition that seemed to come from an unseen source. Things were more difficult than they should be. Obstacles were thrown in their path. Darius said, “Something was of enough significance in this record that Satan did not want it to come out.”
One group and then another volunteered to take on the job, and faltered only a few days into the project. Finally, Marie and Darius turned to the South Point Family History Center at the Utah State Prison for help. Here was a stable source of skilled workers who might volunteer to work on the project.
“We warned them,” said Marie, “that we had faced great opposition from Satan. They said they knew all about opposition from that source and they’d be honored to make him unhappy. ‘Besides,’ the prisoners said, ‘Who knows more about shackles and chains and being torn apart from your family than we do?”
Setting Prisoners Free
It would take eleven years and involve the labor of more than 550 prisoners, who clamored to work on the project. It seemed to them that genealogy work was even more about saving the living than the dead, for here were men and women, their self-worth tattered, their family connections largely hashed, who found themselves in a work that carried the spirit of Elijah about it.
They liked to call themselves a spiritual parole board-letting prisoners go free. As they connected the families of these former slaves on a database, many found new ways to reach out to their own families.
The prisoners who qualified to work on the Freedman project had to live by certain standards, including attending the church meetings of their choice, reading scriptures daily, and praying morning and evening. Amazing things happened. Recidivism, which can be as high as 98%, plunged among those who worked on the project.
Darius and Marie met often with the prisoners doing the extraction work. “Many of the men were embarrassed by the acts they had committed,” said Darius. “It was a healing tool to work on the records. It opened doors and lines of communications for them. Those who worked on the project ceased to be a problem in the prison population. The administration noted it.”
Marie said that the inmates commonly take a personality profile when they come to the prison, and one man’s profile was so different after he had worked on this project for awhile that he didn’t test as the same person. Another was begging to be involved in the program. He had received a blessing the night before he left home in which he had been promised that the prison would become a temple to him. When he heard about this Freedman records project, he knew that was a fulfillment of his blessing.
Sometimes the prisoners cried when they read the oral histories. Most of them came to feel that they didn’t have it so bad. The slaves had faced so much worse.
Then while the project rolled forward, Marie was diagnosed with a brain tumor which had to be removed surgically. She had to learn to walk and talk all over again, but she was reminded that God was aware of her. The one skill she didn’t lose was her knowledge of family history.
Exterior of the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Located in Salt Lake City, Utah, it is the world’s largest library of its kind in the world.
In a symbolism that nobody missed, the project was finished on Independence Day, 2000 and the Church put all the information on a CD that was offered at cost when it was released to commemorate Black History Month in February 2001. Darius said, “We had no way of knowing how interested people would be or where the release of the CD would take us, but the whole thing reminds me of an old Negro spiritual, ‘When the Lord Gets Ready, You’ve Got to Move.’ We may not always be ready for all that he has planned, but when he has a plan, you’ve got to be ready.”
Even before the news conference, something was stirring, a spirit brooding upon many people.
Natalie Harris of Lindon, Utah had a dream she knew right away was significant. “I dreamed there was a lone black man leaning up against a building. He doesn’t dare talk to me, but with his eyes he is pleading for my attention. I turn and look down a long, eternal strip of green grass and all along this green pathway are many black people. I sense they are dead, but they need me to do something for them. I go up to the man leaning against the wall and say, I know what you want. and then I turn and all of the people come running toward me.
“Then I woke up, she said. But the love I felt was overwhelming. I have learned when I dream to pay attention to any names I hear, and in this dream I heard two-Powell and Holbert. I got right up, wrote my dream down, and then went to my genealogy database on my computer and typed in Powell. It connected with nothing. Then I typed in Holbert. Nothing matched that name, but the next name that popped up was Howell. I knew that was it. It was their way of taking me to them. The name was Howell Lewis, an ancestor of mine who had a large plantation and many slaves. Those were the people I had seen, and I needed to do their genealogy and connect them to their families.”
That was a busy week for Natalie and she made a promise in prayer that she would start doing the research in one week. Meanwhile she asked her friends who were involved in genealogy, “Do you know anything about doing the genealogy of slaves? Where do you find their records?” Nobody knew.
One week from the day she had had her dream, on February 27th, she sat down to her computer to work, when her husband called “absolutely flabbergasted.” He had heard the press announcement about the Freedman Bank Records. For $6.95 the records of 484,000 former slaves were now available.
The Freedman’s Bank records from 1864 to 1871 are now available to the public on compact disc. Produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these records contain approximately 480,000 pedigree-linked names of African Americans.
Press conferences were held in 13 major metropolitan centers across the United States; dignitaries from the African-American community were invited. The original 10,000 CDs were sold out in days and another 20,000 pressed. It wasn’t just the release of a database, but a celebration, not just a genealogical event, but a sociological one. For the Church, which has sometimes been regarded with suspicion among the African-American community, it was bridge building.
An Oakland newspaper reported that Betty Stevenson had searched for years for her family’s past and run into nothing but dead ends, now the journey had a bright new beginning. “I came in search of my blackness,” she said. What she found was family pride. Washington D.C. representative to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, found a great-great grandfather, Richard Holmes, the first time she looked at the CD.
“The people who hear about this CD say, ‘we have been torn from our roots, now you have given them back to us.’ The phones ring off the hook with 50 or 60 calls a day. One illiterate woman called to ask if someone could sit by her and help her find her family. People write in and say they have had dreams. We hear that they are starting genealogy lessons in African-American communities to help children feel grounded,” Marie said.
“The depositors of the Freedman Bank were former slaves-men and women who had little education, little money, and little anticipation of what the future would ultimately yield. But today they can be found, remembered and appreciated by those who enjoy a very different life,” noted Darius.
An executive at the distribution center said, “I don’t know of any other time during my years here that we have ever released a product that has given our telephone operators the kinds of impressions and feedback from our customers, both member and particularly non-members, that this product is producing. We have people literally weeping on the phone with gratitude and wanting to know who we are, what other products we have, why we do this type of thing, why it doesn’t cost more money.”
A patron works in one of the more than 3,500 family history centers operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Darius Gray says everyone of those 484,000 are people who matter to him. Feeling their pain and their loss, he looks forward to a time when their temple work can be done. But just as personal is the slaveholder whose name goes unmentioned. Someone asked Darius, “Are you going to do his work?” Before Darius could give his own answer, the Spirit told him, “Of course you are.”
And this is the Lord’s way.
2001 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.