From slave to founder of the first black-owned bank, how William Washington Browne rose to prominence

January 02, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History, Success Story

Theodora Aidoo

Theodora Aidoo | Staff Writer

January 02, 2020 at 04:00 pm | History, Success Story

Reverend William Washington Browne, a former Georgia slave, founded the first-ever black-owned bank in America. The bank, “True Reformers Savings Bank”, was the first black bank in the United States to receive a charter.

The name of the bank was derived from the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, a Black fraternal organization established by Browne in 1849.

The bank was founded in 1888 but wasn’t opened until the following year. At the time of opening, the bank had deposits of more than $1,269 on the first day.

Otherwise known as the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers, the bank was initially operated out of Browne’s home at 105 West Jackson Street in the Jackson Ward district of Richmond, Virginia.

Browne’s Fraternal Organization was described by W.E.B. Du Bois as “probably the most remarkable Negro organization in the country.”

Reportedly, his bank grew and survived the economic depression of 1893, and at the time, it was the only bank in Richmond to maintain full operation, honoring all checks and paying out the full value of accounts.

William Washington Browne, founder of first black-owned bank
Pic Credit: blackbusiness.com

Browne was a minister, an educator, and businessman and was one of only eight men, including Booker T. Washington, selected to represent African Americans at the Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895.

By 1907, at its peak, the bank had more than $1 million in deposits.

Browne was born enslaved on October 20, 1849, in Habersham County, Georgia to Joseph Browne and Mariah Browne. At the age of eight, he was sold to a horse trader and it was then he adopted the names William Washington. His original name was Ben.

When the United States Army occupied Memphis, fifteen-year-old Brown ran away and joined the Union Army during the Civil War. After the war, he attended school in Wisconsin and then returned to the South in 1869 to teach in Georgia and Alabama.

He became a Methodist minister in 1876 and spearheaded the formation of groups. In his biography, it was noted that Browne established insurance that provided members with sick and death benefits.

By encouraging members to purchase land and engage in practices of temperance and thrift, Browne believed that blacks in the post–Civil War South could thrive.

“Browne’s enterprising mind helped lead the True Reformers in creating and organizing a bank which became the nation’s first chartered black financial institution and a model that others, such as Maggie Lena Walker, would follow,” James D Watkinson reported.

Even though he was born into slavery on a Georgia plantation, Browne was able to rise from slavery to build a business empire.

He died in 1897 but the bank thrived after his death and expanded into a number of other services, including a newspaper, a real estate agency, a retirement home and a building and loan association.

New branches were opened in Kansas and by 1900, the bank was operating in 24 states while owning property valued at a total of $223,500.

Browne’s funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Richmond’s black community.

After his death, under the administration of the new president, Reverend William Lee Taylor, the bank was mismanaged and there was embezzlement of $50,000 by the bank’s cashier.

Unfortunately, the State Corporation Commission ordered the bank closed by 1910. However, it still remains in history as the first bank owned by African Americans in the United States.

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