During the Civil War, there were banks established in the South where black soldiers and runaway slaves could make deposits. But many of the records were lost and after the war, many of the newly freedmen were unable to get their money back. Also, if they died in the war, many of their deposits were never claimed. The Freedman’s Bank (also known as the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company) was started by John W. Alvord and A. M. Sperry in 1864 to consolidate the many small banks under the common control of one large company. On 03 March 1865, Congress incorporated the bank, along with the newly formed Freedman’s Bureau. The Freedman’s Bank then managed accounts for and collected deposits from people who were former slaves and their descendants. Interest was earned on the deposits, and any of the deposits to the smaller banks that were made during the war and had gone unclaimed were used to fund educational programs for the children of ex-slaves. Unfortunately, the bank made several bad investments and there was corruption and fraud among the bank’s management who tried to cover it up. By 1874, the bank, which then had 37 branches in 17 states and the District of Columbia, faced economic instability. President Frederick Douglass donated thousands of dollars of his own money to try to revive the bank. But by mid-year the bank was closed and there was almost three million dollars of deposits due to be paid back to 61,000 African American depositors (none of which was insured by the federal government) that vanished and was never returned.
In 1989, Marie Taylor of the Family and Church History Department of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints discovered the original microfilms of the old bank records. She organized a program for prison inmate volunteers to transcribe and index the records. After 11 years of extracting 484,083 names and copies of records, today, the records of 29 of the bank’s branches (with images of the documents) are available and searchable for free at FamilySearch.org (https://www.familysearch.org/wiki/en/African_American_Freedman%27s_Savings_and_Trust_Company_Records). These records contain a remarkable amount of information about the newly freed African American depositors. Copies of the applications contain their name, their ages, where they were born, their occupation, names of their family members and their relationships, who their former slave owner was and where they lived when they were a slave, how long they lived there, where they were living at the time they applied for a bank account, and who was living with them.
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