Black History Month is an important time for everyone to pause their routine and educate themselves about the contributions that black Americans have made throughout history in all aspects of daily life—and the finance industry is certainly no exception.
Let's take a look at the untold history of African Americans in the financial sector:
Black Americans in Finance: A Timeline
Here are some of the first black Americans to establish themselves in the finance world:
Alonzo Herndon was born into slavery in mid-1800s America. His mother was a slave, and his father was the person she served, so he was born into a climate of trauma and abuse. When slaves were emancipated at the end of the Civil War, Herndon was only seven, and, along with his mother and brother, was sent away from the only home they'd known and ended up homeless and destitute. This meant, at a very young age, like so many emancipated slaves, he went back to doing manual labor to make ends meet.
Despite many obstacles as a newly emancipated black American, Herndon became massively successful, running a community barber shop that was soon known as one of the most revered in the South. As he amassed his wealth, he entered into the world of insurance, breaking another barrier of his time. His insurance company made it a primary initiative to help other black business owners save their businesses, amidst the tides of racism in the early post-slavery U.S.
Arthur G. Gaston
Arthur Gaston, commonly referred to as A.G. Gaston, was a successful entrepreneur, and one of the wealthiest black men of his time in the 1960s. He got his start when his family moved from a small Alabama town where he lived in poverty to Birmingham, a bustling city of industry. When his mother took a job for a prominent department store owner, A.B. Loveman, Gaston was offered opportunities that he may not have otherwise had, and he pounced on them.
From modest beginnings, A.G. went from driving a delivery truck to building a business empire that included successful ventures like the Booker T. Washington Burial Society and the Booker T. Washington Business College. He also founded Citizens Federal Savings and Loan Association, one of the first black-owned bank ventures. As he used his business acumen to grow his wealth, he also became the largest employer of black people in Alabama, offering financial reprieve to many still struggling through oppression in a post-civil rights era.
Lilla St John
Lilla St John broke ground in the financial industry in 1953, when she became the first black woman to pass the New York Stock Exchange exam. Passage of the exam allowed her to become a certified investment counselor for people looking to invest money in stocks and bonds. While not a lot of information is available on Lilla, it is clear that her groundbreaking achievements allowed her to help countless black families plan for a better retirement.
There are many more black Americans throughout America's relatively short history who have made significant breakthroughs from banking to Wall Street. This condensed list of early entrepreneurs, capitalists and financial industry trailblazers was chosen because the people profiled here were remarkably able to overcome the odds of their time, and because they used their influence to help others in their community.
How to Support Black-Owned Institutions
Today's financial ecosystem is not without its own set of unique challenges for black Americans. One primary concern is there is still a pervasive lack of diversity amongst institutions like Wall Street, wealth management, financial planning and banking.
The dwindling number of black managers in the finance industry has caused many people to think more broadly on the subject of where they bank. The #BankBlack movement, which trended with this hashtag in 2016 and beyond, has provided black-owned financial institutions with a bit of a boost. Here are some institutions that could use your support to #BankBlack and promote equality in the financial industry:
- The Harbor Bank of Maryland
- Industrial Bank
- Citizens Trust Bank
- Liberty Bank and Trust Company
- OneUnited Bank
Even with many amazing people to thank for paving the road to equality in the financial world, we still have a ways to go. This is just a primer on the early history of black Americans in finance and industry, but we encourage you to use Black History Month to do your own research and learn to think critically about the nuance of race in America—-across all subjects. There are many avenues to explore and threads to pull when you start diving into issues of race in the financial sector, and the people who have championed change within it.
Knowledge is power and, in finance, there's no such thing as having too much of either, so consider the wisdom and experience from financial pioneers of every background as you look to improve your own financial situation, both now during Black History Month, and for many years to come.