Bernard Garrett, as a black businessman, purchased a lot of commercial and residential properties until he became the owner of more than 175 buildings, including what was believed to be the tallest structure in downtown Los Angeles in 1961, the Banker’s Building.
At a time when racism made these feats almost impossible for African Americans, Garrett had to operate in the shadows while hiring white men to be the frontmen of his businesses. In the process, he helped make millions while improving the lives of black people in the 1950s and 60s.
The fact that he had to use white front men to help build his wealth and success as a real estate mogul confirms the realities of the time. In the era of Jim Crow, African Americans were denied fair participation in real estate and business, and even if one had bright ideas, they were compelled not to show up in any deal as their skin color could ruin the process. Such was the fate of Garrett, and being forced to use white colleagues later landed him in trouble.
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Born in the town of Willis, Texas, in 1922, Garrett spent three years in high school in Houston before working odd jobs and beginning his own cleaning businesses.
But in order to make a better living for himself and his family, Garrett and his wife and three children moved to California in 1945 where Garrett began another cleaning service, including collecting waste paper to support his family.
He was able to save enough money to buy a property in Los Angeles but what began his path towards a successful real estate business was when he met one Mr. Barker, a white real estate investor. The two would form a partnership investing in properties, with Barker being the face of the deals while Garrett operated in the shadows.
By 1954, Garrett had become one of the wealthiest blacks in the country, worth $1.5 million (about $14 million today), according to History.
Barker died, but that didn’t stop Garrett from pursuing his dreams. He approached nightclub owner and businessman Joe Morris, and in 1962, the two agreed to buy the Banker’s Building, where most of the banks in Los Angeles were headquartered. To make this possible, they had to hire white faces whom they coached to execute their deals while they remained invisible.
Essentially, Garrett and Morris, in the course of building their business empire, could not present themselves publicly as owners of their businesses; they could not preside on the board of directors, neither could they even enter their own properties as businessmen because of their race.
Thus, these white faces acted as CEOs and saw to the daily operations of their businesses, while Garrett and Morris sometimes posed as janitors and chauffeurs just to monitor their businesses and offer advice, without the knowledge of many.
During the Banker’s Building acquisition, History reports that Garrett hired Matt Steiner to be the face of the process. Described as a former psychiatric aide, cabinet maker, milkman and real estate salesman, Steiner was also the frontman during the purchase of a Texas “white bank” – the Mainland Bank & Trust Company of Texas City.
Garrett had then expressed his desire to help the black population of his hometown, Texas, many of whom were having great difficulty obtaining real estate loans.
With capital from white man Don Silverthorne, president of San Francisco National Bank who had “had prior dealings” with Morris, Garrett and Morris were able to buy the Main Land Bank & Trust Co. in Texas City, Texas in 1963.
Steiner further became their white front in the purchase of another Texas bank, First National Bank of Marlin.
But Steiner, who later claimed that he “acted only at the discretion and solely in the interest of Morris and Garrett,” began taking certain questionable actions that spelled doom for the hard-fought business empire.
In the mid-1960s, Garrett and Morris appeared before a U.S. Senate subcommittee after a federal grand jury in El Paso, Texas charged them with misapplying funds and conspiracy while naming Steiner as a co-conspirator.
In 1965, the two black businessmen were sentenced to three years for misapplying $189,000 in bank funds. They served nine months.
Garrett, whose story is portrayed in the film The Banker, passed away in a nursing home in Los Angeles in 1999. Before his death, he began other businesses but none came close to what he had built with Morris.
As historian Brandon Winford noted, Garrett’s banks really changed the lives of black people in the United States.
“Black-owned banks were able to help African Americans participate in the economy in ways they were never able to participate,” Winford said. “They were able to purchase homes, take out a small loan to purchase an appliance or a car. Many black churches and schools were helped and saved because of African American-owned banks.”