57. Freedman Saving and Trust Bank

Signed into law in 1865 by President Lincoln and incorporated into the Freedman’s Bureau, the Freedman Savings and Trust Company was a way for newly escaped slaves to transition into freedom and have economic safety in the form of a bank.  Though initially started in New York, the headquarters eventually moved to Washington, DC and branches operated in 17 states and consisted of 37 branches, 70,000 depositors and $57 million in deposits.  Several leading members of the African American community in Georgetown had accounts with Freedman Savings and Trust Company, including Alfred and Hannah Pope.  Frederick Douglass was eventually made a director of the bank but found rampant corruption at the highest levels.  He used $10,000 of his personal funds in an attempt to bail out the failing institution but did not succeed.  Freedman Savings and Trust Company folded in 1874 against political forces attempts to undermine Reconstruction. In the District alone over 3,000 depositors—both individuals and cultural institutions—lost their savings. While the failure of the Freedman’s Bank was tragic and left many African Americans with feelings of distrust of the American banking system, the records created by the bank are a rich source of documentation for black family research for the period immediately following the American Civil War. What make these records so important are the thousands of signature cards that contain personal data about the individual depositors. In addition to the names and ages of depositors, the files can contain their places of birth, residence, and occupations; names of parents, spouses, children, brothers, and sisters; and in some cases, the names of former slave owners. These records of the individuals, who lived through the transition from slavery to freedom, are the keys that allow their descendants to unlock the mysteries of their largely undocumented family histories. The Washington, DC headquarters used to sit where the current US Treasury annex is close to the White House.  The Treasury Annex building was renamed “Freedman Bank Building” in 2016 and historic records from 29 of the 37 branches survive today and are searchable at the National Archives. These records are invaluable to genealogists looking for information on African Americans due to the wealth of data contained in signature cards, deposit records, and other correspondence kept in the bank ledgers.