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150th Anniversary of the Freedman’s Bank

Today’s post was written by Damani Davis, reference archivist at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

On March 3, 2015, the National Archives will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Company, better known as the “Freedman’s Bank.”

The founding of the Freedman’s Bank was spearheaded by John W. Alvord, a Congregationalist minister and abolitionist originally from New England, who served as a chaplain accompanying Gen.William Tecumseh Sherman’s troops during their march through Georgia. During his time in Georgia, Alvord observed the destitute conditions of the former slaves and also noted a pressing need for greater financial literacy and some type of savings bank to serve the black soldiers of the U.S. Colored Troops.

The Twenty-ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, shown here, were stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina. The Military Savings Bank at Beaufort, opened in 1864 by Gen. Rufus Sexton, eventually became one of the Freedman's Savings Bank's branches. (National Archives, 111-BA-1324)

The Twenty-ninth Regiment Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, shown here, were stationed in Beaufort, South Carolina. The Military Savings Bank at Beaufort, opened in 1864 by Gen. Rufus Sexton, eventually became one of the Freedman’s Savings Bank’s branches. (National Archives, 111-BA-1324)

To address this need, Alvord later went to New York, where he met with philanthropists and leading businessmen to plan a “benevolent banking institution that would provide black soldiers with a secure place to save their money and at the same time encourage the values of thrift and industry in the newly freed African-American community.”[1] John W. Alvord and the founding trustees succeeded in getting a charter for incorporation approved by Congress and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on March 3, 1865. Ultimately, 37 branches of the Freedman’s Bank were established in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Although most of these branches were based in the states of the former Confederacy, there were also branches in northern cities such as New York and Philadelphia.

Initially, the Freedman’s Bank legitimately appears to have started off as a benevolent institution staffed by officials and trustees who were sincerely interested in promoting financial “upliftment” to the formerly enslaved population. It was intended to be a nonprofit savings bank with two-thirds of the deposits invested strictly in stocks, bonds, Treasury notes, and other securities of the United States. The remainder of the accumulated deposits was to be set aside to cover any eventual operational expenses. Members of the board of trustees were to receive no compensation, and no loans were to be made to any officials connected to the bank.

Bank Book: Ann Blue opened this account in Lexington, Kentucky, in August 1873. After the bank's demise in 1874, she sent in this passbook and received $37.94 in dividend payments. (National Archives, Records of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, RG 101)

Ann Blue opened this account in Lexington, Kentucky, in August 1873. After the bank’s demise in 1874, she sent in this passbook and received $37.94 in dividend payments. (National Archives, Records of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, RG 101)

An 1870 amendment to the Freedman Bank’s charter removed some of the original restrictions prohibiting loans and speculative investments. At the same time, a significant number of the original founding trustees were no longer serving and had been replaced. These changes eventually led to mismanagement and corruption among some of the bank’s managing officials. These developments, together with a broader, national economic recession, resulted in the failure of the Freedman’s Bank.

The collapse of the Freedman’s Bank was a traumatic blow to the recently freed black population that was hoping to use their savings to purchase homes and land. During its operation, over 70,000 customers had opened accounts in the Freedman’s Bank with deposits totaling approximately $57 million. Although the Freedman’s Bank had officially received its charter from Congress, Congress had not established any Federal responsibility for the solvency of the institution.

Most of the African American depositors were not aware that the Freedman’s Bank was not an official agency or arm of the Federal Government. In their zeal to generate interest in the new financial institution and to appeal to prospective clients, John Alvord and many other early promoters had promoted the Freedman’s Bank as an official instrument of the Freedmen’s Bureau (which was a Federal Government institution ) and had proclaimed that the bank had the official sanction of Gen. Oliver Otis Howard and the late President Abraham Lincoln himself.

The founding promoters had declared to clients that the bank “was absolutely safe, being under the guarantee of Congress, and having the funds invested in United State securities, which were safe as long as the government should last, and that it was a benevolent scheme solely” for their benefit. Prospective clients were told that any profits “would be returned to the depositors as interest, or would be expended for Negro education.” [2]

As Reginald Washington, former archivist at National Archives put it, “The closure of Freedman’s Bank devastated the African American community. An idea that began as a well-meaning experiment in philanthropy had turned into an economic nightmare for tens of thousands African Americans who had entrusted their hard-earned money to the bank.” [3]

While half of the depositors of the Freedman's Bank eventually received some compensation, others received nothing. Some, including these depositors in the Norfolk, Virginia, branch, tried unsuccessfully in 1880 to petition Congress for reimbursement.

While half of the depositors of the Freedman’s Bank eventually received some compensation, others received nothing. Some, including these depositors in the Norfolk, Virginia, branch, tried unsuccessfully in 1880 to petition Congress for reimbursement.
(National Archives,Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, RG 233)

The long-term ramifications of this trauma, particularly as it pertains to the subsequent economic history of African Americans, will be discussed at a symposium held at the National Archives for the 150th Anniversary Commemoration on March 3. The symposium will include a brief historical introduction to the Freedman’s Bank records, a moderated panel discussion consisting of former Ambassador Andrew Young, John Hope Bryant of Operation Hope, and Vanessa De Luca, editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine, and a post-event reception to be held in Rotunda.

[1] See, Reginald WashingtonThe Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research,” Prologue (Summer 1997, Vol. 29, no. 2).

[2] Walter L. Flemming, The Freedman’s Savings Bank: A Chapter in the Economic History of the Negro Race (1927), 45.

[3] Washington, “The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research.”


Temple of Our History

On February 20, 1933, President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover left the White House by car just before 2:30 p.m. with an escort of nine motorcycle policemen. Their destination was the corner of 7th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, to lay the cornerstone of the National Archives Building in Washington, DC. The event had not been widely advertised, and the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue went largely unnoticed.

The ceremony was attended by a small group of officials including Secretary of Treasury Ogden Mills, whose department was overseeing the construction project.

The cornerstone laying ceremony at the National Archives, February 20, 1933. (Records of the Public Building Service, National Archives)

The cornerstone laying ceremony at the National Archives, February 20, 1933. (Records of the Public Building Service, National Archives)

During the ceremony, the President dedicated the building in the name of the people of the United States. He proclaimed, “The building which is rising here will house the name and record of every patriot who bore arms for our country in the Revolutionary War, as well as those of all later wars. Further, there will be aggregated here the most sacred documents of our history, the originals of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution of the United States. Here will be preserved all the other records that bind State to State and the hearts of all our people in an indissoluble union.”

Hoover continued, “The romance of our history will have living habitation here in the writings of statesmen, soldiers, and all the others, both men and women, who have builded the great structure of our national life. This temple of our history will appropriately be one of the most beautiful buildings in America, an expression of the American soul. It will be one of the most durable, an expression of the American character.”

In the cornerstone, Hoover placed several items, including a copy of the Declaration of Independence, a copy of the Constitution, an American flag, and copies of the Washington daily newspapers.

President Herbert Hoover laying the cornerstone of the National Archives Building, February 20, 1933. (Records of the National Archives)

President Herbert Hoover laying the cornerstone of the National Archives Building, February 20, 1933. (Records of the National Archives)

The ceremonies closed with the Marine Band playing the National Anthem and a blessing by the Bishop John McNamara of Baltimore. The President and his party then returned to the White House as an honor guard from the United States Coast Guard stood at attention.


From Ben Franklin to the Civil War: Antislavery Petitions in Congress

Today’s post comes from Natalie Rocchio, an archives specialist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

One of the most contentious issues facing our nation in the early years was slavery. Unsurprisingly, the First Congress received a series of antislavery petitions as part of the first unified campaign to the new Federal Government. These petitions came from three organizations: the Philadelphia and New York Yearly Meetings of the Society of Friends (Quakers) and the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery to Vice President John Adams, February 3, 1790. (National Archives Identifier 306388)

Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, February 3, 1790. (National Archives Identifier 306388)

Benjamin Franklin served as President of the Pennsylvania Society, which was believed to be the most influential of the three organizations.

On February 3, 1790, Franklin signed a petition which he sent to Congress on February 9, 1790, calling for Congress to “devise means for removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American People” and to “promote mercy and justice toward this distressed Race.” While Franklin’s petition was considered the most radical, all three petitions sparked intense debate in the House and the Senate.

After a day of debate, the Senate decided to take no action on the petitions. The House referred them to a select committee for further consideration. The committee reported on March 5, 1790, stating that the Constitution restrained Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves until 1808 and interfering with the emancipation of slaves. The House then tabled the petitions, effectively ending the debate on the issue of slavery in the First Congress.

Perhaps the most significant call for the abolition of slavery came over 80 years later. This round originated from the Women’s Loyal National League, an organization whose sole mission was to campaign for a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. With Elizabeth Cady Stanton as the league’s president and Susan B. Anthony as the secretary, the women organized one of the largest petition drives the nation and Congress had ever seen.

"To the Women of the Republic," Address of the Women's Loyal National League Supporting the Abolition of Slavery, January 25, 1864. (National Archives Identifier 306400)

“To the Women of the Republic,” Address of the Women’s Loyal National League Supporting the Abolition of Slavery, January 25, 1864. (National Archives Identifier 306400)

 

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts introduced the first 100,000 signatures to Congress on February 9, 1864. And although in April the Senate passed the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, Sumner continued to introduce petitions from this drive at least twice a month throughout the summer. The House passed the 13th Amendment in January 1865, and it was sent to the states for ratification. The amendment was ratified by the states in December of that year.

Sumner credited the league as the principal force behind the drive for the 13th Amendment.

While these two petitions are nearly 80 years apart, each share a special piece of history in the monumental movement to abolish slavery in the United States.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Go here for more information on Franklin’s petition.


On Exhibit: Unbroken

Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC. 

Certificate (copy) awarding the Purple Heart medal to Louis Zamperini, 10/12/1944. (National Civilian Personnel Records Center, National Archives)

Certificate (copy) awarding the Purple Heart medal to Louis Zamperini, 10/12/1944. (National Archives at St. Louis, National Archives)

On May 28, 1943, Army Air Force bombardier Louis Zamperini’s B-24 airplane went down over the Pacific Ocean. Given the size of the Pacific and the distances covered by U.S. bombers, recovering downed aviators in the Pacific Theatre during World War II was difficult, at best.

While some submarines on lifeguard patrols were able to rescue downed aviators, including George H.W. Bush, Zamperini and his crew were not among them.

Zamperini and his crewmates, pilot Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips and Francis “Mac” McNamara, survived the crash only to endure starvation, dehydration, Japanese fighter bombings, and shark attacks. After 33 days at sea, McNamara passed away.

During the 46 days at sea, the men drifted more than 2,000 miles into Japanese-controlled waters. On the 47th day, in sight of land, the Japanese captured Zamperini and Phillips. The two men were eventually separated, but both endured over two years of captivity and torture as prisoners of war before being released at the end of the war in 1945.

Having received no word of Zamperini for a year following the crash, the U.S. Government declared him dead and awarded him the Purple Heart for “wounds resulting in death.” After his release, Zamperini returned to the United States to the surprise and relief of his family.

Letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family thanking them for Louis Zamperini's service to his country, 5/28/1944. (National Civilian Personnel Records Center, National Archives)

Letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family, 5/28/1944. (National Archives at St. Louis, National Archives)

In honor of the nomination of the film detailing Zamperini’s life, Unbroken, for an Academy Award, Louie’s Purple Heart medal (on loan courtesy of Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken), copies of the certificate awarding Zamperini the Purple Heart, and a condolence letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Zamperini family will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from February 5 through March 4, 2015.

Since Zamperini received his Purple Heart award in 1944, more than 350,000 American service men and women have become members of the order.

For more information on the history of the Purple Heart, read  “A Heart of Purple: The Story of America’s Oldest Military Decoration and some of its Recipients” from the 2012 Winter issue of Prologue magazine.

Special free screening of UNBROKEN

Tuesday, February 10, at 7 p.m. in the William G. McGowan Theater at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC

Join us for a free screening of the film Unbroken (2014; 137 minutes; trailer), based on the 2010 book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival Resilience and Redemption. The film, a World War II action drama, was produced and directed by Angelina Jolie and stars Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, and Domhnall Gleeson. Presented in partnership with NBCUniversal and in conjunction with the UNBROKEN Featured Document display, February 5 through March 4, 2015.

Register online or call 202-357-6814. Theater doors will open 45 minutes prior to start time. Walk-ins without reservations will be admitted 15 minutes prior to start time, depending on available seats. Attendees should use the Special Events entrance on Constitution Avenue and 7th Street, NW.


Changing the Boundaries: Women at Work in the Government

Today’s post comes from Samantha Payne, intern in the Center for Legislative Archives. in Washington, DC. 

On January 29, 1790, Mary Katherine Goddard sent the Senate a singular request: to be reinstated as postmistress of Baltimore. After running the post office for 14 years, and paying post-riders with her own savings during the American Revolution, she was infuriated to lose her position—especially when the stated reason was that “more traveling might be necessary” for the job “than a woman would undertake.” In her petition, Goddard accused the Postmaster General of dismissing her so he could give the lucrative title to his friend.

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 1. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Goddard’s rise and fall as one of America’s first female public servants began in a printing shop. In 1774, she helped her brother William establish Baltimore’s first weekly newspaper. Within a year, she became the sole proprietor of the Maryland Journal and the Baltimore Advertiser. Her excellent reputation prompted Benjamin Franklin to appoint her as postmistress of Baltimore, making her the first woman to run a national government office. In 1777, the Continental Congress requested that she publish the first copy of the Declaration of Independence, complete with its signatories.

Goddard was proud of her work in the Post Office. When she lost her job in 1789, she protested to the newly formed Federal Government. On December 23, 1789, she wrote to President George Washington, explaining that it was a matter “of peculiar distress to her” that the government would reward a man with “all that she had to rely on, for her future dependence and subsistence.” Washington sent only a curt response. Historians speculate that he refused to help Goddard because she associated with his opponents, the Anti-Federalists.

More than 230 Baltimore citizens, including Maryland’s Governor, signed Goddard’s petition to the Senate. Still, she never regained her office. For the remainder of her life,Goddard supported herself by running a bookshop. She passed away in 1816. Her final act was to free her slave, Belinda Starling, and leave the young woman everything she owned.

Nearly 150 years after Goddard sent her petition to Congress and President Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt received an indignant letter about a similarly sensitive subject. On December 28, 1936, Walter Glass began his note, “Pardon me for being presumptuous.” Glass objected—rather strongly—to the President’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. He felt that “a man should head this important department,” and thoughtfully signed off his critique of the executive by counting himself among “many admirers that respect and love you. I mean just that.”

President Franklin Roosevelt's nomination of Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor, March 4, 1933. (National Archives Identifier 595434)

President Franklin Roosevelt’s nomination of Frances Perkins to be Secretary of Labor, March 4, 1933. (National Archives Identifier 595434)

Despite the protests of men (and women!) like Walter Glass, Perkins had a long and distinguished career as the first female cabinet member. She served as Secretary of Labor for 12 years and helped create the New Deal. Determined to serve the “millions of forgotten, plain common” working people, she campaigned for national unemployment and old-age insurance. Her efforts culminated in the Social Security Act of 1935.

As postmistress and Labor Secretary, Goddard and Perkins pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible for women of their time. The documents they left behind serve as reminders of the important role women played in the Federal Government, and the challenges they faced along the way.

The Center for Legislative Archives is marking the 225th anniversary of the First Congress by sharing documents on Tumblr and Twitter; use #Congress225 to see all the postings.

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Mary Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 2. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Petition from Mary Katherine Goddard, January 29, 1790, page 3. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)