Black History Month: Reflecting on Money Milestones

Posted by Sha'Kreshia Terrell in Black EconomicsFebruary 1, 2023(Last Updated February 1, 2023)5 min read
Key Takeaways
  • Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions of African-Americans in the United States.
  • The finance industry used to be a field largely closed off to African-Americans. 
  • Nonetheless, African-Americans persisted in the face of hardship and became influential financial figures.
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Black History Month is a time to reflect on the contributions of African Americans in the United States. One area where they have had an outsized impact is the financial industry.


Finance used to be a field that was largely closed off to African Americans. As recently as the 1960s, many banks refused to loan money to people of color, and even those who could get loans were often charged higher interest rates than their white counterparts.


This progress has come with challenges. It's still harder for Black-owned businesses than others to get funding from banks, a fact that's especially true for small businesses that want to start offering credit cards or other financial products.


In honor of Black History Month, it’s important to highlight African Americans who have persevered in the face of adversity to make a change in the financial industry. Below is a timeline of some of the most significant financial achievements by African Americans.


1787 - The Free African Society is Established


In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Free African Society (FAS) was founded in 1787 by free African Americans and American preachers Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. The group's purpose was to offer companionship, a place of worship, and financial assistance to its members and their families in the event of illness or death.


When yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia in 1793, the FAS helped the sick after many white Philadelphians had already left the city by offering them support and financial assistance. Unfortunately, due to debts incurred due to the FAS's decision to remain and support the sick, the group was forced to disband by the end of 1794.


Recommended Read: Why Group Economics is Important for Black Communities


1821 - The First Black Patent Issued


Thomas L. Jennings was a civil rights activist who worked as a tradesman and tailor from New York City. In 1821, he became the first African American to be issued a patent for his unique dry-cleaning method.

When he received his patent, most Black inventors were still enslaved and denied their patent rights. However, since Mr. Jennings was born a free slave, he was able to obtain a patent for his invention. 


Recommended Read: Black History Month: Finance Edition with Stix


1905 - The Largest Black Financial Institution Opens


Alonzo Herndon established the Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905, which is still among the biggest Black financial institutions in the country.


He was once a slave who later became a barber and opened the Crystal Palace, a barbershop for affluent white men. Dr. Marcellus Barksdale, a historian, revealed to Georgia Public Broadcasting that Herndon once owned 100 properties in Atlanta, Georgia, and three barbershops. He was the first African American millionaire in Atlanta.


1906 - Black Wall Street


Tulsa, Oklahoma


In 1906, O.W. Gurley relocated to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and bought 40 acres on Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street.


Gurley owned numerous businesses of his own and helped other business owners succeed. As a result, law firms, medical centers, upscale stores, eateries, movie theaters, barbershops, and salons all grew to be a thriving part of Greenwood. In addition, it had its own post office, bank, bus service, and educational system. 

The Tulsa Historical Society and Museum's executive director, Michelle Place, told that "it is said that within Greenwood, every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left the community." The 18-hour Tulsa Race Massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Riot, was committed by a white mob in 1921 and is still regarded as one of the worst instances of racial violence in American history.


Durham, North Carolina


In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Durham, North Carolina, was a thriving city for Black families and entrepreneurs. There were countless Black-owned businesses that included barbers, hair salons, pharmacy stores, and tailors.


Unfortunately, in the 1960s, desegregation started, and many Black business owners couldn’t compete with white business owners. Also, the federal government contributed to the deconstruction of what once was a thriving neighborhood with its Urban Renewal initiative. The initiative was meant to repair “slum” neighborhoods, and in the 1970s, the Durham Freeway 147 was constructed, which ran directly through the community of Black-owned businesses. 

Black wall street

Image Credit: KAD Photo /

Black Wall Street historical signage and landmark in downtown Durham, North Carolina.


Recommended Read: Black Wall Street: Then and Today


1908 - Binga Bank Opens


Jesse Binga, a real estate investor and community leader, founded Binga Bank, Chicago’s first Black-owned bank.


Mr. Binga was considered a “missionary” for Black wealth. He used much of his time to teach about the value of the "double duty dollar" and broaden the scope of the Black Belt.


His outspoken public persona naturally made him a target of racism. As a result, Jesse’s home and businesses were bombed on multiple occasions. Nevertheless, he continued his journey until the fall of the Great Depression in 1930, which closed his bank and many other businesses.


1970 - The New York Stock Exchange's First Black Member


Joseph L. Searles III joined Neuberger, Loeb, and Company as a partner on February 13, 1970, making him the first black floor member of the New York Stock Exchange.


He was the first Black CEO of the State of New York Mortgage Agency and briefly played football for the New York Giants. He also held a law degree from the George Washington University Law School. 


1989 - Formation of The Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act 


The American government passed the Financial Institutions Reform Recovery and Enforcement Act in the wake of the savings and loans crisis of the 1980s (FIRREA). Low-income families now have easier access to homeownership thanks to FIRREA. However, the Office of Thrift Supervision also needs to work to protect and advance minority financial institutions, according to FIRREA.


1993 - The National Black Chamber of Commerce was established


Harry C. Alford and Kay DeBow, a married couple, established the National Black Chamber of Commerce in 1993. (NBCC). The NBCC seeks to "economically empower and sustain African American communities through entrepreneurship and commercial activity." The NBCC is still in operation today and is still working to promote the growth of Black businesses.


2017 - New York Stock Exchange´s Youngest African American Female Equity Investor


When Lauren Simmons joined the New York Stock Exchange as a female equity trader in 2017. At the time, she was just 22 years old and the second African American woman to ever hold that position. 


Although Lauren is no longer a trader, her influence in finance lives on, and she is currently working on a film about her experience that will be released this year. She aims to inspire more women and people of color to become knowledgeable about the financial services sector.


2019 - The Youngest Black Woman to Own a Digital Bank


In 2019, CapWay, a digital bank, and financial service platform was established by serial entrepreneur and business mogul, Sheena Allen. Along with providing banking services, CapWay also provides savings tools, financial education, and more via their website and mobile app.


A native of Terry, Mississippi, Sheena saw that her hometown lacked proper access to banking services. Since she already had a successful tech company, Sheena Allen Apps, she had a huge advantage in understanding the process of building her second tech company, CapWay.


In her popular TEDx talk, Sheena stated that she was intentional about the name of the bank that she was forming, and thus CapWay means “a new way of doing capital.”


Sheena Allen

Sheena Allen speaking at the San Francisco Tedx event in 2019. 

Photo provided by Sheena Allen


Recommended Read: America’s Black Homeownership Gap Continues


The Money Wrap-Up


Black History Month is an annual observance that honors the triumph and struggles of African Americans. As people of all races reflect on Black History Month, it’s important to celebrate all that African Americans have accomplished in the finance industry and beyond.

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