The searchable, digital archive--unveiled by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at a news conference Monday--will make available rare, poorly organized, and aging paper files on more than 70,000 of the bank's account holders.
"I'm really looking forward to this," said Eric Foner, a history professor in New York with Columbia University's renowned Institute for Research in African American Studies. "This will be a great treasure trove of documentation virtually unusable before. Those who have been able to research it have only really been able to scratch the surface."
Rahn Rampton, spokesman for MyFamily.com, a San Francisco-based leader in Internet genealogical services, said that making the Freedman's bank records widely available could mean breakthroughs for blacks who have previously encountered dead ends trying to trace family history before the Civil War years of 1861-65.
"The challenges they face are unique, very different from other genealogists," 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 the South--weren't kept for blacks. Until the war ended, most blacks also could not vote, go to school or buy property, eliminating other standard sources of family history information.
Slave ships kept no manifests of slave identities, and if blacks were identified at all by slave owners, it was only by first name.
LDS Church officials declined to discuss release of the CD-ROM, which reportedly took five years to compile from records stored at the National Archives in Washington.
Foner--who was forced by schedule conflict to decline an invitation to participate by satellite in Monday's news conference--believes the historical value of the Freedman's bank records cannot be overstated.
"I have used those records in my own research, and it means sifting through a massive amount of paper. They basically consist of bank books and these little cards of information [ex-slaves] filled out when opening their accounts," said Foner.
Ronald Coleman, a University of Utah associate professor of African-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 or less, from 72,000 clients. It had 37 branches throughout the South, as well as in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington. The bank began to teeter with Wall Street's Panic of 1873, and not even renowned black orator Frederick Douglass--who became Freedman's president in 1874--could save the institution.
However, Karen Dace, a professor in the university's African-American Studies program, said the bank's records provide more than a glimpse into tragedy for blacks struggling to make new lives after their emancipation.
"These records also go a long way toward dispelling some of the myths about African Americans. These were indeed people committed to success and doing 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 to its mission of reaching beyond its own membership -- primarily interested in finding ancestors for the purpose of sacred temple rites, including proxy baptisms--to non-Mormons seeking their roots.
Alexander Baugh, a professor of family history at Brigham Young University, said the Freedman's bank records join other records collections released in recent years by the church, among them the 1851 and 1881 British censuses, Scottish church membership rolls and military indexes of casualties in the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"This is evidence that the church is interested in disseminating these kinds of research data to everyone, records previously not thought of as valuable genealogical tools," Baugh said.