In March 1865, Congress incorporated the Freedmen's Savings and Trust Company for the benefit of the nation's former slaves. Between 1865 and 1870, branch banks could be found in every one of the former Confederate states as well as Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and New York City. They were exceedingly popular institutions. Before the bank failed due to egregious mismanagement in 1874, tens of thousands of black women and men flocked to nearby branches, eager to deposit the fruits of their hard-earned labor, to make deposits in the name of their children or other close kin, and to open accounts in the name of churches, burial societies, clubs, associations, and organizations.
The five branches that opened in the Carolinas were among some of the busiest: we can see this in the surviving ledgers in which bank clerks in Raleigh, New Bern, and Wilmington, North Carolina, and Charleston and Beaufort, South Carolina, registered transactions with tens of thousands of former slaves.
Many of the depositors had been free before the war and jumped at the opportunity to use funds accumulated during slavery to open accounts in freedom. Others were artisans who had accumulated money in trades as varied as tailoring, coopering, and shoemaking. A smaller number of account holders were professionals: teachers, preachers, grocers, and later, with the extension of full political rights to the South's black men, legislators and elected officials. The overwhelming majority of those who opened accounts were unskilled urban and agricultural workers. That this last group often had to travel long distances to reach the nearest bank, suggests the importance former slaves attached to earning their own money and putting it away for their own or their children's future. But that's not all historians can learn from the bank's ledgers, in volumes known as "signature books." Because the banks operated long before the advent of social security numbers and other mechanisms designed to identify account holders, clerks recorded considerable information about each depositor: soliciting names, ages, places of birth, current occupations and residences, the names and disposition of family members, and in early editions, the names of former owners.
Not every clerk recorded answers for every query. Perhaps they never bothered to ask. Perhaps they asked and the applicant could not or would not answer. Yet as incomplete as many of the entries are, they open up new understandings of the recently emancipated, their pasts, and the futures of which they dreamed. Reproduced below is one of those incomplete entries, made when Louisa Durant opened an account at the Charleston, South Carolina, branch of the Freedmen's and Savings Trust Company.
A Charleston Freedwoman Opens a Bank Account
Record for Louisa Durant Depositor No 2
1. Name of Depositor. Louisa Durant
2. Birthplace. Virginia
4. Complexion. light Brown
. . . .
7. Residence. Charleston
8. Married or single. married
9. Name of husband or wife.
10. Residence of husband or wife.
11. Names and ages of their children. Ellen Durant
12. Residences of their children.
13. Name of the father of depositor.
14. Name of mother of depositor.
15. Names of brothers and sisters of depositor.
. . . .
21. Name of last master of depositor. Mr & Mrs Wittpen
22. Old title of depositor. Louisa Durant
23. Last residence of depositor while a slave. Charleston SC
24. Time when depositor came within Union lines.
25. What depositor has since been doing, where lived and who worked for. Market Woman
Source: Entry of Louisa Durant, 29 Dec. 1865, no. 2, Registers of Signatures of Depositors in Branches of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874, Records of the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, National Archives, Record Group 101, microcopy 816, reel 21.
Questions to Consider
1. As is the case with many of the bank's ledgers, not every inquiry is followed by an answer. Yet working with the information that the clerk did records, what can we learn about Louisa's personal history? Who was she?
2. What kind of roles (civic, social, political, economic) did she see herself playing in the new post-slavery nation?
3. How do Louisa's ideas about what she ought to be and do as a free black woman compare to the kinds of freedoms articulated by Charles Soule (Document 4) or to Chanie and her daughter (Document 6)? On what points did they differ? On what points do they agree? And how do your answers help you understand the unfolding debate about freedom and its meanings?