Owner of the First Black-Owned Bank was Once a Slave

The tale of Rev. William Washington Browne, a former Georgia slave who formed the first-ever Black-owned bank in America, is told in the history of The Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers. The bank, which was founded in 1888, opened with more than $1,269 in deposits on the first day. 

The bank was founded by Reverend William Washington Browne to serve the financial interests of Black depositors. He desired a bank that would serve to protect Black clients’ finances, ensuring that whites would not be able to monitor their accounts. 

The Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, a Black fraternal society founded by Browne in 1849, inspired the bank’s name. After the Civil War, racial tensions remained high, so Browne built the first Black-owned bank in Richmond, Virginia, which he ran out of his home at first. Two years later, the bank relocated to 604-608 North Second Street, a few blocks away.

The bank performed admirably. Browne’s bank was one of the few that survived the 1893 U.S. economic downturn when people were panicked and racing to the banks to withdraw their money. In reality, it was Richmond’s only bank that was able to pay out the full value of its customers’ accounts while remaining open for business. 

The bank continued to operate after Browne’s death in 1897. It also ventured into other fields, including publishing, real estate, a retirement home, and a building and loan association. Its expansion encompassed businesses in 24 different states.

The bank, however, was mishandled under the new president, Reverend William Lee Taylor, who frequently made unsecured loans that defaulted. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a bank teller embezzlement of $50,000. The bank was compelled to close by the State Corporation Commission in 1910.

Browne was born enslaved in Habersham County, Georgia, on October 20, 1849, to Joseph and Mariah Browne. He was sold to a horse merchant when he was eight years old, and it was then that he took the name William Washington. Ben was his first name. 

During the Civil War, when the United States Army conquered Memphis, fifteen-year-old Brown ran away and joined the Union Army. After the war, he went to school in Wisconsin before returning to Georgia and Alabama to teach in 1869. 

In 1876, he became a Methodist minister and was instrumental in the creation of groups. Browne devised insurance that offered members with ill and death benefits, according to his biography. 

Browne felt that blacks in the post–Civil War South could succeed if they were encouraged to buy land and practice sobriety and economy.

“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.

Browne rose from slavery to develop a corporate empire despite being born into slavery on a Georgia plantation. 

He died in 1897, but the bank continued to thrive after his death, expanding into a newspaper, a real estate agency, a retirement home, and a building and loan organization. 

New branches were created in Kansas, and by 1900, the bank had expanded to 24 states, with a total asset value of $223,500. 

Browne’s funeral was one of the biggest in Richmond’s black community’s history. 

Following his death, the bank was mishandled under the leadership of the new president, Reverend William Lee Taylor, and the bank’s cashier embezzled $50,000. 

Unfortunately, the bank was forced to close by the State Corporation Commission in 1910. It is, nevertheless, remembered as the first African-American-owned bank in the United States.

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