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Freedman's Bank Review

The Freedmanís Bank is being used more today to assist African Americanís in their family research. While it was set up as a way to boost the newly freed black manís self esteem and a way to save his money, as little as it was, it failed in what it set out to do.

ďLet My People Go: The Healing Stories Behind the Freedman Bank RecordsĒ, by Maurine Jensen Proctor of Meridian Magazine relays the history of the Freedmanís Bank as follows:

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.

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.

Freedman's Bank was an outgrowth of a plan to provide banking services to African Americans drafted during the Civil War. It would take eleven years and involve the labor of more than 550 prisoners, who clamored to work on the project.

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.

Many of the men were embarrassed by the acts they had committed. "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."

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. 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.

The link to the Freedmanís Bureau Online is http://www.freedmensbureau.com. There is also a lot of African American research information included on this site.

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