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An (Extremely) Brief History of African Americans in Banking

February 14, 2024


In honor of Black History Month, we thought it would be pertinent to highlight the many milestones that African Americans have achieved in finance and banking. Ever since emancipation, African Americans have played a significant role in the development of our modern financial and banking institutions. It is our sincere hope that these stories of influential figures in Black history can help inspire you.

The Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company was a savings bank chartered by the United States’ Congress in 1865 to collect deposits from newly emancipated communities. It opened 37 branches across 17 states and Washington D.C., collecting funds from more than 67,000 depositors across the country. Unfortunately, the bank’s rapid growth was mired by mismanagement and fraud, weighed down by speculative loans issues by the bank’s White officials, and would eventually fail in 1874.

Blanche Kelso Bruce was the second African American to be elected to the U.S. Senate and the first to serve a full term. Born a slave to a plantation in Virginia, he is best remembered for his investigation of the collapse of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company. He would later become the first Black Register of the Treasury and the first African American to appear on U.S. Currency in 1879.

The same year that Bruce first appeared on U.S. Currency, the first bank founded by African Americans opened in Washington D.C. The Capital Savings Bank provided capital to Black-owned businesses, to whom many White-owned banks were unwilling to lend. Just four years after it opened, the bank’s deposits had grown to well over $300,000. The Bank continued to operate under African American leadership and within Black communities until it closed in 1902.

Between 1888 and 1934, 134 Black-owned banks were formed to help Black communities overcome financial hurdles, not only by providing capital and credit but also offering training and employment. One of the greatest successes of African Americans in the financial sector was in the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, also known as Black Wall Street. Greenwood had become one of the most prosperous Black communities in all of America. Tragically, the neighborhood was destroyed by white supremacists during race riots in 1921.

In the early 20th century, many former slaves made names for themselves in the financial services industry. Alonzo Herndon was one such former slave, founding the Atlanta Life Insurance Company after working his way up from slave to barber to the owner of several barbershops, before eventually opening what is still one of the largest Black financial institutions in the United States, as well as becoming Atlanta’s first African American millionaire.

While not a slave herself, Maggie Lena Walker was the daughter of former slaves who would grow up to become the first African-American woman to charter a bank. The St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was designed by a Black architect and was one of few banks at the time whose board included a high percentage of women. Walker would go on to serve as the Bank’s president for several years.

Another former slave was Major R.R. Wright who, along with 70 other Black bankers, founded the first professional organization of African Americans in finance in 1927, an organization which still operates today as the National Bankers Association and focuses on providing financial support for underserved minority communities.

Following the Civil Rights Movement of the late 60s and early 70s, African Americans became much more represented across all financial sectors. In 1970, Joseph L. Searles became the first African American to do business on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Azie Taylor Morton was the first African American woman to have her signature on U.S. Currency when she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as the 36th Treasurer of the United States. In 1993, Harry Alford and Kay Debow founded the National Black Chamber of Commerce, which today is the largest Black business organization in the world, with regional chapters in the United States, Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, London and Paris.

We hope this extremely brief history of the role African Americans have played in the banking and financial services industry has been both entertaining and informative. It is a history of great struggle that highlights the hurdles minorities have had to overcome in order to achieve some level of success in today’s society. Hopefully, we will continue to work toward equity and equality in the future, not just in our industry, but across all parts of our society.

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