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Wednesday February 28, 2001

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Mormon church releases post-Civil War database

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Mormon Church published records Monday from the post-Civil War Freedman's Bank for newly freed slaves, making ancestral records available for as many as 12 million black Americans.

The records have been available for years through the National Archives but not in organized form. The church, formally the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, spent 11 years, with help from volunteer Utah state inmates, extracting and linking the 480,000 names contained in the records.

The result is a searchable database on compact disk which includes information such as family names, birth locations and names of former slave owners.

"These records can provide clues for an estimated 8 to10 million African-American descendants living today who might want to research their family histories," said Elder L. Lionel Kendrick, a church official.

The church began the project when an employee discovered the existence of the original microfilm records. At that time, no one had undertaken the long process of extracting the documents into one database.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, said, "For too long, African-American history was embodied in untruth. We were not given an opportunity for truth."

The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company was established through a congressional charter in 1865 - the same year the Civil War ended - to help former slaves with their new financial responsibilities. With 37 branch offices in 17 states, the bank had deposits totaling more than $57 million before it collapsed in 1874 because of mismanagement and fraud.

What survived, however, were meticulous bank documents recording the names and family relationships of account holders.

One application for a former slave lists the name of his former plantation, age, complexion, children, place of birth and occupation. It also lists the names of siblings who were sold away during slavery.

"The records created by the bank are a rich source of documentation," said Reginald Washington, an archivist with the National Archives and Records Administration.

Still, the discovery of the documents poses prickly questions for the nation.

When the bank closed, about 61,000 account holders were eligible to receive money. Less than 30,000 former slaves ever recovered their money and even then, most received just over half of what they were actually owed, Washington said.

Jackson Lee said it was premature to say whether there would be legislation to compensate the former account holders. Instead, she said she hoped to first have a review of the bank's records and operations.

Jewish descendants of the Holocaust have sued several European countries in recent years over decades-old bank accounts and other property confiscated by Adolf Hitler's Germany and European collaborators.

The Freedman's Bank had branches in Huntsville and Mobile, Ala.; Little Rock, Ark.; Washington, D.C.; Tallahassee, Fla.; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Ga.; Lexington and Louisville, Ky.; New Orleans and Shreveport, La.; Baltimore, Columbus, Natchez and Vicksburg, Miss.; St. Louis; New York; New Bern, Raleigh and Wilmington, N.C.; Philadelphia; Beaufort and Charleston, S.C.; Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Lynchburg, Norfolk and Richmond, Va.

The Mormon church has maintained a massive genealogical database since 1894, originally to assist church members in tracing their family histories. The collection today is the largest of its kind. The church also plans to release a searchable database of the 1880 Census.