Black Economic Empowerment

There’s no question that Black people in the United States face historical and institutional barriers to financial health, wellness, and empowerment on par with white Americans.

In its records, the U.S. Federal Reserve has been tracking inequalities between Black and white wealth.  It claims the disparities in building wealth can be seen in a variety of ways, from inheritance, home ownership, debt, and retirement planning.   And before we classify these discrepancies as a question of smart planning and irresponsibility, the access to wealth building opportunities have a longstanding, institutional history of anti-blackness.

Scholars have pointed out that white wealth in the United States (and globally) continues to be built on the exclusion of Black people from housing, jobs, banks, loans, schools, and more.  You can learn more about these practices  here, here, and here.

Since its Black History Month, we thought we’d share a story about Black Wealth and Black Economic Empowerment that inspires.

Did you know the first woman to ever serve as Founder and President of a Bank is Black?  Her name is Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934).   Her success in finance and entrepreneurship is especially inspiring because did did all that in 1903–when women and Black people couldn’t even vote.

Maggie Lena Walker lived in Richmond, Virginia. She was a community organizer, a mother, wife, and all-around powerhouse.  Her parents were born into slavery, yet she created thrived beyond expectations.

She served in a mutual aid society called the Independent Order of St. Luke (IOSL), where she turned Black workers’ small savings into capital, “creating businesses that offered services, created jobs, and provided security “ for the Black community.  She even set up a community insurance company for Black women.

In 1903, she founded St Luke Penny Savings Bank and became its first President.  By 1910, Richmond Virginia had 14 Black-owned banks, more than any other city in the United States.  With more than 50,000 members, St Luke Penny Savings Bank survived the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression by collaborating with another Black bank to establish the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company.

Maggie Lena Walker never went to college.  She defied the racism, sexism, and institutional limitations through an understanding of herself and her community as worthy.  And she maintained her determination despite the odds, , while she sought the skill and leadership experiences that expanded and redefined the economic lives of so many Black people.

Read,  Shennette Garrett-Scott, Banking on Freedom:  Black Women in US Finance Before the New Deal (2019)