The searchable, digital archive--unveiled by theChurch of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a news conference Monday--will make available rare, poorly organized, and aging paper files on morethan 70,000 of the bank's account holders.
"I'm really looking forward to this," said Eric Foner, a historyprofessor in New York with Columbia University's renowned Institute forResearch in African American Studies. "This will be a great treasure troveof documentation virtually unusable before. Those who have been able toresearch it have only really been able to scratch the surface."
Rahn Rampton, spokesman for MyFamily.com, a San Francisco-based leaderin Internet genealogical services, said that making the Freedman'sbank records widely available could mean breakthroughs for blacks who havepreviously encountered dead ends trying to trace family history before theCivil War years of 1861-65.
"The challenges they face are unique, very different from othergenealogists," he said. "The more information available, the better."
White genealogists can often turn to church, court and cemetery records.
But prior to the Civil War, many of those documents--especially in theSouth--weren't kept for blacks. Until the war ended, most blacks alsocould not vote, go to school or buy property, eliminating other standardsources of family history information.
Slave ships kept no manifests of slave identities, and if blacks wereidentified at all by slave owners, it was only by first name.
LDS Church officials declined to discuss release of the CD-ROM, whichreportedly took five years to compile from records stored at the NationalArchives in Washington.
Foner--who was forced by schedule conflict to decline an invitation toparticipate by satellite in Monday's news conference--believes thehistorical value of the Freedman's bank records cannot be overstated.
"I have used those records in my own research, and it means siftingthrough a massive amount of paper. They basically consist of bank books andthese little cards of information [ex-slaves] filled out when opening theiraccounts," said Foner.
Ronald Coleman, a University of Utah associate professor ofAfrican-American history, said that when the Freedman's bank failed in 1874,the meager life savings of many recently freed slaves disappeared.
"Many of the smaller depositors lost everything," he said. "Less than 25% of the depositors ever received any reimbursement."
At its height, the bank had $3 million in deposits, most of them $50 orless, from 72,000 clients. It had 37 branches throughout the South, as wellas in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington. The bank began to teeterwith Wall Street's Panic of 1873, and not even renowned black oratorFrederick Douglass--who became Freedman's president in 1874--could savethe institution.
However, Karen Dace, a professor in the university's African-American Studiesprogram, said the bank's records provide more than a glimpse into tragedyfor blacks struggling to make new lives after their emancipation.
"These records also go a long way toward dispelling some of the mythsabout African Americans. These were indeed people committed to success anddoing what it took in terms of saving, buying [and] starting businesses," she said.
Release of the CD-ROM also shows the Utah-based church's commitment toits mission of reaching beyond its own membership -- primarily interested infinding ancestors for the purpose of sacred temple rites, including proxybaptisms--to non-Mormons seeking their roots.
Alexander Baugh, a professor of family history at Brigham YoungUniversity, said the Freedman's bank records join other records collectionsreleased in recent years by the church, among them the 1851 and 1881 Britishcensuses, Scottish church membership rolls and military indexes ofcasualties in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"This is evidence that the church is interested in disseminating thesekinds of research data to everyone, records previously not thought of asvaluable genealogical tools," Baugh said.