The Richmond History Podcast

Monday, February 6, 2012

The First African American Bank

William Washington Browne
24 years and 1 month to the day after Richmond fell to Union troops1March 2, 1888, the first black-owned and black-operated bank in the USA, The True Reformers Savings Bank received its state charter in Richmond, VA.2 The bank officially opened in 1889.  At its peak in 1907, it took in more then $1 million in deposits.3  During the financial panic of 1893, it was the only bank in Richmond that continued honoring its checks.2

Its leader was a former slave named William Washington Browne (1849-1897).  He was given the name "Ben"at his birth2 in Habersham County, Ga.  His parents Joseph Browne and Mariah Browne, were Va field slaves that met after being sold to Georgia.2 When he was about 8 he was sold for the first time. As he was repeatedly sold,  he moved around the south until he was finally sold to a horse trader near Memphis, Tennessee and adopted the name William Washington.2  When Union forces occupied Memphis 1862, he took the opportunity to escaped2 becoming an officer's servant and then joining the  Union Army at age15. During his 2 years of military service,3  he served on a Union gunboat and in the infantry.2  After leaving the military in 1866 he made his way to Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin where he got an education.2  Browne returned to the south in 1869 teaching in Georgia and Alabama,where he  met and married Mary A. Graham.  His education won him immediate respect which only increased when he bravely spoke out against the KKK in the 1870's.2

Dating back to a short time he spent in Cairo, Illinois working in a saloon after the war, he acquiring a life long horror of drinking.4  He sought the endorsement of  a white temperance society in Alabama called The Independent Order of Good Templars.  They were not about to have a black chapter of their organization but shared his passion for temperance.   They offered him a charter and sponsorship  under the separate name of the Grand United Order of True Reformers.  He quit his teaching job to focused on the True Reformers.  His excellent speaking and organization skills enabled him to quickly organized 50 local chapters or "sub fountains".  50 was the minimum he needed to form a state organization or "Grand Fountain".  He used church connections to further this ambitious goals, becoming licensed and ordained to preach by The Colored Methodist Episcopal Church Conference of Alabama in August 1876.2

Browne had bigger plans for his group then meerly temperance.  He was already thinking about creating an empire including an  insurance company and a bank but couldn't get them charted in Alabama.2

In 1880 he moved to Richmond, Va, taking control of the struggling Grand Fountain of True Reformers of Virginia and serving as pastor of the Leigh Street Methodist Episcopal Church.2

His first try at an insurance company in Va, the Mutual Benefit and Relief Plan of the United Order of True Reformers, was not planned well and was "little more than a Ponzi scheme".2  It relied on signing up new subscribers to pay the existing ones.2

But the second try became a huge success. In 1885 The True Reformers instituted the first insurance plan of an African American fraternal society based on actuarial calculations of life expectancies. Members and prospective members paid varying fees for their insurance according to their ages,2 even setting up a department for the children known as the Rosebud Department.  The object of this department was
"To discipline the young, to train them to practice thrift and economy, and to give lessons early in the business methods of life, to establish a fund for the relief of sick members and a mortuary fund from which, on satisfactory proof of death, of a benefited member a sum not exceeding thirty-seven dollars shall be paid to parents or guardians."4

Based on the success of the insurance company, The True Reformers Savings Bank humbly opened in Browne's home at 105 Jackson Street in the Jackson Ward neighborhood in Richmond, Va.  The following year the True Reformers moved the bank to a new three story edifice on 2nd St.1

William Washington Brown's home and the first location of his bank, photo by Jeff Majer
By 1891 membership approached 10,000, and they owned the largest black owned building in Richmond containing the bank, several business offices, four large meeting rooms, and a concert hall.2
Before long the True Reformers would acquired a hotel, concert halls, 150-room hotel, a home for aged members, and publish a weekly newspaper2 that by 1900, had a circulation of over 8,000.4
Sign on the fence of 105 Jackson Street, Richmond, Va, The first site of The Bank of the True Reformers, photo Jeff Majer



Browne's standing was widely recognized.  He was one of only eight men, including Booker T. Washington, selected to represent African Americans at The Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta in 18953 and W.E.B. Du Bois characterized Browne's Fraternal Organization as "Probably the most remarkable Negro organization in the country."4

Browne, urged the formation of "fountains" to pool money and buy land saying "Let us stop playing, trifling and wasting our time and talents, and scattering our little mites to the four winds of the earth, and let us unite ourselves in a solid band."3  He strove to help members live productive lives without depending upon the white community.2  According to Anita Wills of the African American Genealogical Society of Northern California, "Browne preached a gospel of money, morality, education and family, racial solidarity and self-help. While whites were quarreling over the Negro problem, Browne urged his fellow blacks, "Let Us Work It Out Ourselves.""4

Browne died in Washington, D.C., on December 21, 1897 after he refused a doctors recommendation that he have his arm amputated because of cancer.2  Unfortunately his bank collapsed 11 years later, a victim of mismanagement and embezzlement. The True Reformers continued as a fraternal order and insurance agency until its demise during the Great Depression.3

But his impact was incredibly improtant in  Jackson Ward which is known as "The Cradle of Black Capitalism," and "The Harlem of The  South" and would give way to 6 black owned banks1 including the famous St. Luke's Penny and Loan run by Maggie L. Walker.







2. http://encyclopediavirginia.org/Browne_William_Washington_1849-1897
3. http://www2.timesdispatch.com/special_section/2009/feb/09/william_washington_browne-ar-81714/
4. http://www.aagsnc.org/columns/feb99col.htm




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