As I was researching Let Me Fly, I relied heavily on an unlikely source for fictional inspiration: the records of the Freedmen's Bank, which opened its Atlanta branch in 1870. The Freedmen's Bank, which had branches throughout the South in the early 1870s, was intended to encourage the habit of thrift and saving in former slaves. I took a small liberty in fictionalizing the story of Iverson Riley, who became a Freedmen's Bank depositor on August 22, 1870.
When the Atlanta branch of the Freedmen’s Bank first opened in January, it had been overwhelmed with former slaves eager to save their money. The cashier and his clerk had signed up scores of new depositors every day. Now, on a hot Tuesday afternoon in August, they sat at the table where they had created so many accounts and shook their heads at the quiet.
Lucius Wimby, the clerk, said, “The grocer down the street gives folks a gift for coming in. A peck of cornmeal. Maybe we should offer folks a gift for bringing in their money.”
Philip Cory, the cashier, asked, “What kind of a gift?”
Wimby grinned. After seven months, he was at ease with Cory. He no longer had trouble with Cory’s Yankee accent. He said, “Give them a chicken.”
“A dressed chicken for dinner? In this heat?”
Wimby laughed. “A live chicken to lay an egg every day.”
Cory laughed too. He had never been South before he came to run the bank branch. He could not have managed in Atlanta without Lucius Wimby, who had come from a life of slavery in rural Georgia, just like most of the depositors. Wimby, now educated, now dressed in a banker’s wool suit and starched white shirt, put the freedmen at their ease. Cory looked around the interior, built new just after the war, and said, “Where would we put a mess of chickens?”
Wimby joked, “Don’t we have room in the alley for a coop?”
The door opened, and a man came in. He was slight and very dark of skin, and he wore the clothes of a workingman, a rough cotton shirt and nankeen trousers, both stained with grease. His shoes were dusty. Wherever he had come from, he had walked to the bank.
He looked around him in surprise, as though he might have walked into a bank by mistake. Seeing his confusion, Wimby said, “How can I help you, sir?”
He took off his hat and looked with further surprise at the well-dressed, well-spoken black man who had addressed him. He said, “Is this the place where a black man can save his money?” He touched his pocket. “I brought my money with me,” he said.
Wimby said, “We’re glad of it, sir.” He introduced himself, and then introduced Cory, who held out his hand. “I’m glad to meet you, sir.”
The man looked even more surprised at a proffered hand and a courteous address from a white man. Cory said, “What is your name, sir?”
The man unfroze and said, “Iverson Riley, sir.” It came out “suh,” as in slavery.
Cory said, “Sit with Mr. Wimby and he will open your account. Then come to me and I’ll count your money and deposit it for you.”
Wimby gestured Riley to the little table, and they sat. Wimby opened the book where they recorded the new depositors and said, “I need to ask you some questions.”
“Where were you born, Mr. Riley?”
“In Newman, in Georgia.”
“And where were you raised?”
“In Newman and Atlanta. Came to Atlanta two years ago.”
“Where do you live in Atlanta, sir?”
“Live over in Jennings town. On Markham Street.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-three on my last birthday.”
“What is your employment?”
“I work for the Mills Valley Railroad. Do general labor.”
“Are you married?”
Iverson Riley laughed. It came out as a snort. “I ain’t,” he said. “Can’t afford it, in Atlanta.”
“Do you have any children?”
Indignant, Riley said, “I do not. I’m a good Christian man. Wait till I marry for that.”
Wimby’s face indicated his regret at having to ask. “Who is your father?”
Riley looked suspiciously at Wimby. “Why are you asking me all them busybody questions? What do it matter?”
Wimby said, “We’ll be responsible for your money. We need to assure that no one but you takes anything from your account. If someone else comes in, claiming to be Iverson Riley, and can’t say who your father was, we know him for an impostor.”
Riley nodded, as though he knew about deceit, but he’d never thought of it in relation to money. “All right,” he said. “I’ll answer any question you put to me.”
They established that Riley’s father Thomas had died in Covington in Georgia and his mother mother Harriet Riley was in Atlanta, along with his brothers Dave and Marion and his sisters Mary and Lucy. “We all live together at Jennings town.”
Wimby nodded. Riley said, “Do you need to know about the others?”
“I do, sir.”
“There’s Olly, still in Newman, and Jim, who’s dead. And Lizzie, who was carried away in slavery.”
Wimby inclined his head. No matter how often he heard such a thing, it still saddened him. He said, “Now you need to sign the book.”
Riley said regretfully, “Can’t write my name.”
“I’ll write it down for you, and you can make a mark next to it. We can take that as a signature.”
“Show me how to write that mark.”
Wimby showed him.
Riley gripped the pen as though it needed force, like a hammer or a bellows. He concentrated, and he made the mark of an “X” where Wimby showed him to. “Is that all right?” he asked.
Wimby smiled. “That’s just fine,” he said. “Go to the counter, where Mr. Cory is standing, and he’ll deposit the money for you.”
Riley got up. Wimby saw how his right pant leg pulled. He had put all his money in his pocket.
At the counter, Riley pulled a heavy cloth from his pocket, with the money bundled in it. It fell on the counter with a heavy clanking sound. “Five dollar, all in coin.”
Riley watched as Cory untied the bundle and surveyed the newest deposit. It was in small coins, nickels and dimes. Cory said, “I’ll count it, so we know how much you’re depositing.” He sorted the coins by their denomination, and with the skill of long practice, counted them. He said, “You have five dollars and ten cents,” he said. “Do you want to deposit it all, or to take the dime with you?”
Riley wavered. He said, “If I had a dime I could take the horsecars home.”
Cory smiled and handed Riley the dime. He said, “Now I’ll give you an account book and write the record of your deposit in it.” As Riley watched, Cory opened the drawer and pulled from it a little leather-bound book. He wrote in it, and handed it to Riley. It was small enough to fit in his shirt pocket. Gold letters gleamed on its cover. “What do it say?” Riley asked, pointing to the letters.
“It says, ‘National Freedmen’s Savings and Trust.’ Inside, it has your name, and the record of the five dollars you brought us today.” Riley held the little book in his hand and looked at the gold lettering. Cory said, “Keep it safe, and don’t let anyone else take it.”
Riley said, “Don’t want any imposters trying to get my money.”
Cory said, “I see that Mr. Wimby explained that to you.”
Riley nodded. He looked weary, as though banking were more exhausting than the railroad work he did for a living. He said, “Can’t promise to bring five dollar every time.”
“Bring us whatever you can. Every dime you save will help you in the future.”
He brightened at the thought of the future. He said, “Thank your Mr. Wimby for helping me.”
“I will, Mr. Riley. A good day to you!”
Iverson Riley opened the door and walked into the street with a pleased look and a light step, as befit a free man with a bank account.