How The Freedman's Bank Became an Enduring Symbol of Black Hope Even Amid Failure

"It was a sight I had never expected to see. … The whole thing was beautiful". These words were said by Frederick Douglass in a moment of genuine feeling and truly encapsulate the significance of The Freedman's Bank to America- specifically the black consciousness. Created in 1865 through a charter of Congress, the savings bank was created to service the financial needs of the newly freed black community. Having only experienced slavery in America, the former slaves had never had any way of legitimately handling their own financial affairs. They needed the support and education necessary to integrate into their new American society. For many, this was the first time they would earn their own wages.

At the time of speaking the quote mentioned above, Douglass, then escaped slave, activist, and author, was in awe of one of the bank's newest buildings in a series of expansions. It was ostentatiously set up across from the White House in Washington, DC. To think that an institution founded for and supported by former slaves could accomplish such a thing was, at that time, revolutionary.

Unfortunately, due to a lack of close monitoring, corruption, mismanagement of funds, and a general lack of accountability for those charged with ensuring the institution's longevity, The Freedman's Bank failed. These misgivings made it impossible for them to survive the Panic of 1873 when the post-war economy contracted. Sadly, it cost thousands of black people, with largely meager individual savings, to collectively lose nearly 3 million dollars. Even in the years that followed, many could only recoup a share of what they had lost.

Yet, the old site of the bank's DC branch was later used as an Annex for the US Treasury and on the 7th of January, 2016, they commemorated the 150th anniversary of the Freedman's Bank by renaming the Treasury Annex the Freedman's Bank Building. This is because, though the venture did eventually fail, during its tenure, the bank was able to accomplish things that, before that time, blacks could only dream of. It did real good - providing food, housing, and medical aid to tens of thousands of former slaves. It was even able to locate lost relatives and build schools for African Americans across the South. As such, the story of The Freedman's Bank is not only a teachable moment in history. It is a story that gives us all the tangible permission to aspire to the greatness of a more inclusive and equitable society.

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