Within the archival collections of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) at the National Archives is a trove of valuable records of African American banking history: ledgers and accounting records of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust company.  The OCC, as the first U.S. federal institution with banking supervision authority, is an important ancestor of the Federal Reserve System. The OCC was established in 1863 within the Department of the Treasury by the National Bank Act, as part of the reforms of the financial system intended to help pay for the Civil War.[1]

On March 5, 1865, Congress chartered the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company to serve as a banking institution for those declared released from slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment. Prior to this, banking services were largely unavailable to African Americans in both the South and North. Although there were African American property owners,[2] entrepreneurs, and even millionaires,[3] and private lending and mutual aid societies met some of the need for business and investment credit, no deposit banks for African Americans existed.[4] Toward the end of the Civil War, the U.S. government established military banks to serve this purpose for the many freedmen who had joined the Union Army and were receiving regular pay.[5] The Freedman’s Savings Bank, as it was also known, was designed to expand on this function and to encourage saving and good personal finance habits in the African American community.[6]

The Freedman’s Bank was extremely popular from the start. Tens of thousands of people opened deposit accounts, swelling the Bank’s balance sheet by millions of dollars.[7] Expanding from its original headquarters in New York City, the organization opened dozens of branches throughout the country, from Washington, D.C., to as far away as Houston.[8] Each branch kept records of its depositors, often including “the name of the depositor; account number; age; complexion; date of application; place of birth; place raised; occupation; spouse; children; names of parents, brothers, and sisters; remarks; and signature.”[9]

Unfortunately, the expense of maintaining those branches, the elaborate building commissioned to house the Bank’s headquarters and the unstable financial climate of the late 19th century would contribute to the Bank’s failure in less than a decade. Furthermore, the Bank—chartered by Congress as an independent entity, not a national bank—was not subject to the OCC’s supervision or financial rules, and, after a Congressional amendment to the Bank’s charter in 1870, it could and did undertake risky, speculative real estate investments. Internal mismanagement, external political manipulation, racial discrimination by state governments and the white financial community, and the Panic of 1873 all quickly drove the Bank into a precarious state. [10] In 1874, what would be the Bank’s last year, the writer and orator Frederick Douglass became its president, a move that he and the Bank’s trustees hoped would help shore up the Bank’s reputation. Sadly, neither Douglass’s reputation nor the $10,000 of his own money he invested in the Bank was enough to save it.[11] In late June of 1874, the Bank closed. It was so far in debt that most of its more than 60,000 depositors never recovered their deposits.

This excerpt shows the names and locations of depositors who submitted requests for new deposit passbooks in order to recoup part of their losses after the Bank’s 1874 closure.

The Bank’s lasting legacy, however, has been not financial but historical. The Comptroller of the Currency was tapped to oversee the Bank’s final affairs, and the records of the Bank, including index volumes of the detailed depositor records, became part of the records of the OCC. The remaining Freedman’s Savings and Trust company records in the National Archives are business records and microfilm series that, when taken together, provide a unique record of African American lives just after the Civil War.[12] A portion of those records—the loan and real estate ledgers, the dividend payment record, and the miscellaneous finance and accounting records—were all digitized for FRASER in 2016, in partnership with the National Archives and Records Administration. 

[1] Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. “A Short History.” Department of the Treasury, 2011.

[2] Howard Bodenhorn. The Color Factor: The Economics of African-American Well-Being in the Nineteenth-Century South. Oxford University Press, 2015: 144-158.

[3] Juliet E. K. Walker. “Racism, Slavery, and Free Enterprise: Black Entrepreneurship in the United States before the Civil War.” The Business History Review, 60(3), 1986: 343-82.

[4] Charles Gerena. “Economic History: Opening the Vault.” Region Focus, Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Spring 2007.

[5] Reginald Washington. “The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research.” Federal Records and African American History, Summer 1997.

[6]Black History Month: Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company.” OUPblog, February 13, 2017. The institution was also known as simply the “Freedman’s Bank.”

[7] Jesse Stiller. “The Freedman’s Savings Bank: Good Intentions Were Not Enough; A Noble Experiment Goes Awry.” OCC, U.S. Department of the Treasury.

[8] Washington. “Appendix.”

[9] Washington.

[10] Abby L. Gilbert. “The Comptroller of the Currency and the Freedman’s Savings Bank.” The Journal of Negro History, April 1972: 125-143.

[11] Washington.

[12] Ibid.

© 2019, Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis or the Federal Reserve System.

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