It is Black History Month in the United States so over the next couple weeks I will highlight numismatic items with connections to the history of African-Americans. This first installment concerns the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company.
On March 3, 1865, Congress created the Freedman’s Bureau to provide financial and other assistance to newly freed slaves and other African-Americans. The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (otherwise known as the Freedman’s Savings Bank) was chartered by Congress at the same time as a depository institution for African-Americans. The bank was intended to serve two purposes: (1) be a safe place for African-Americans to park their money, and (2) provide employment and training opportunities for African-Americans in the world of finance.
The Freedman’s Bureau promoted the Savings Bank heavily and within months of opening the Savings Bank had thousands of customers and millions of dollars on deposit. A total of thirty-five branches in seventeen states were opened. This initial success was short-lived, however.
The Panic of 1873 reduced yields on government bonds, the primary investment vehicle used for the Savings Bank’s assets. Because the bank was chartered directly by Congress, there was no oversight by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC). Inexperience, mismanagement, speculative investments and outright fraud by some of the Savings Bank’s directors further damaged the Savings Bank’s already precarious position.
Congress finally took action in late 1873 and brought in the OCC to examine the Savings Bank’s affairs. It was too little, too late. The board of directors gave control of the Savings Bank to Frederick Douglass in March 1874 but not even a person of his stature could turn it around. The Savings Bank and all its branches closed on June 29, 1874.
The liquidation of the bank did not proceed very quickly. Liquidating distributions to the depositors began in 1875 but the final dividends were not paid out until 1883. Depositors received no more than $.62 per $1.00. Many received nothing at all because they could not be found or could not adequately assert their claims.
The Freedman’s Savings Bank may not have succeeded as a financial institution, but its records are a treasure trove of genealogical information from a period when documentation of African-Americans is spotty at best.
The Savings Bank records for Harry and Albert Fauntleroy of Richmond, VA shown above identify the genealogical information found in the records. The information includes the place of birth, place raised, current residence, occupation and family information. Harry’s entry only has Albert listed as a brother but Albert’s entry shows a sister named Mary and four brothers who had been sold prior to 1861.
The records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company are held by the National Archives in Washington, DC. They can be found in Records Group 101 among the records of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. A limited number of the Savings Bank’s records are available on ancestry,com.