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Bank records open picture to the past, re-connect families

"Have not seen parents in 35 years. Brothers Ben and Jack and Aleck and Moses (dead) and Robert and William. Sister Susan. Family all left in Va. but Aleck who was sold away first."

That brief entry in a Freedman's Bank for Charles Miller Coleman, recorded Oct. 2, 1867, tells much about life in the mid-19th century for African-Americans who had a history of slavery. A closer look at the Freedman's Bank records has been made available through a new Church family history CD, announced Feb. 26.

Darius Gray, a Church member who helped supervise the project, described the information in the data base: "We can develop a personal glimpse of the lives of African-American families who lived immediately after the Civil War. As new depositors to Freedman's bank, 70,000 African-Americans had to establish their identities as part of the application process. This was no small task."

In creating their identity, they listed their families and sometimes gave brief oral histories, similar to that of Charles Miller Coleman.

Brother Gray said he often became emotional as he read the oral histories. "It is hard not to and when you see a comment such as, 'I never knew parents, was sold away, don't know where brothers and sisters are, because [I] was sold away first.'

"On the other hand, it lets you know how important family was because even in the hostile environment of slavery, people struggled to keep track of each other. They worked at it, they kept track of one another."

He said that the first Africans were brought to North America in 1619. "We have a long history here," said Brother Gray. "We are part of the fabric of this nation, so when anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, looks at those records, that person is looking at American history. I think oftentimes we have been afraid to talk about race, but race is a reality. We ought to share in the history together."

The project of data entry by the inmates was voluntary and non-denominational. The feelings of the inmates who did the work was expressed in a letter sent in 1997, signed by 47 of them.

"We anxiously await the completion of this database and hope that people everywhere will use it to search out their ancestors," they wrote to Church headquarters. "For most do not realize what it is like to be in bondage. Again, we do thank you for allowing us to serve with you on this project and do so in memory of our God, our freedom, our peace, our wives, our children and our ancestors."

William Alex Haley, son of Roots author Alex Haley, attended the announcement press conference. He said, "Everyone has to have some identity. Take the young people of today who are trying so desperately to identify with something. Don't you think that every child needs to know who his or her father is?

"These are questions that when answered will give them links back to who they are, and something they can be proud of instead of negative stereotypes. In general, everywhere that I go in the African-American community, people are concerned about their ancestors."

He said his family and its knowledge of forebears has had a powerful impact on his life.

"It is a lot of responsibility. When Roots first came out, I had to change my behavior. I had a family reputation to be aware of. Places I would have gone before without thinking about I began to think about. I thought, 'This won't look good for my family if I do this,' so it reined me in. It reined my children in. Knowing who you are and what responsibility you have towards your family forces your behavior to be consistent with your family values. It passes right down across the generations."

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Presidency of the Seventy and executive director of the Family and Church History Department, said that while everyone who searches the data base will not find a connection, he hopes the CD will be widely used.

In addition to the Freedman's Bank information, the CD also contains information from the 1870 U.S. Census. Another major data base that is being automated on a CD is the 1880 U.S. Census, which has more than 50 million names, including 6.5 million citizens of African ethnic origin. This CD will be ready for distribution this year. These names, however, are not in family units as are the names in the Freedman's Bank CD. By using these two searchable data bases as tools, researchers will have a better chance of finding their ancestors.

Eventually, the Freedman's Bank will be online, said Elder Christofferson.

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