Five African American Financial Pioneers
Updated: Jul 14, 2022
Part one in a two-part series
Our Money Matters recognizes five financial pioneers in honor of Black History Month. These leaders overcame extreme obstacles, including systematic racism, segregation, sexism, and that's just the shortlist. Although African-Americans have faced barriers in every industry, the financial world has been even less hospitable, with Wall Street blocking opportunities to people of color for at least its’ first 150 years. However, the trailblazers like the men and women we profile succeeded despite the odds. So, as we work towards securing our own financial futures, these leaders can teach us valuable lessons.
1. Maggie Lena Walker was born in 1864 to a formerly enslaved person and a white abolitionist. She was the first Black woman to establish and serve as president of a bank in the United States. Since white-owned banks didn't typically take deposits from Black organizations, Walker started her bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, in Richmond, VA, in 1903. Before founding the bank, Walker was a teacher, and later, she also founded the St. Luke Herald newspaper. St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was renamed Consolidated Bank & Trust after merging with two smaller Black-owned banks in 1930. Walker also chaired the board of directors. The bank is still in operation as the oldest continuously operated African American-owned bank in the U.S.
2. O.W. Gurley was born to freed slaves in the South and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1906, where he purchased 40 acres of land on what would become Greenwood, a community known as Black Wall Street. Before his move, Gurley had already had a prolific career as a minister, landowner, educator, entrepreneur, and member of Grover Cleveland's administration. When he moved to Tulsa, Gurley wanted to help other black people become financially independent. While he ran many of his own businesses, he also supported other entrepreneurs in their business endeavors. Not only did he offer many people loans to open their businesses, but he also transferred ownership for some of his established businesses to other community members. Greenwood became a thriving business center with its own school system, post office, bank, and bus service. Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, told History.com, "It is said within Greenwood every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left the community." The town was devastated in 1921 during the 18-hour Tulsa Race Massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Riot when a white mob committed what is still one of the worst acts of racial violence in U.S. History.
3. Ernesta Procope was a talented pianist who performed in a recital with other children at Carnegie Hall when she was only 13. In Manhattan, she graduated from the High School of Music and Art (now the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art & Performing Arts). After she married and her husband passed away, she founded the E.G. Bowman insurance company in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1953, naming it after her late husband. In 1979, she moved the business making it the first Black-owned business on Wall Street. It grew to become the largest minority-owned insurance company in the U.S. Procope became a powerful voice for insurance reform to ensure fair coverage for low-income families. She also pressed New York to establish its Fair Access to Insurance Requirements plan for homeowners in high-risk areas who would have been denied standard policies. E.G. Bowman's clients have included PepsiCo Inc., Avon Products, Philip Morris International, Time Warner Inc., Tiffany & Co., and General Motors Co.
4. Alonzo Herndon was born in 1858 in Social Circle, GA as an enslaved person. After his family was freed, Herndon had to work as a laborer and a peddler to help support his family. He eventually left his hometown with eleven dollars in savings and one year of formal education. After learning the barbering trade, Herndon went on to open three successful shops. Later he became a real estate investor and founded one of the United States' most well-known and successful African-American businesses, the Atlanta Family Life Insurance Company (Atlanta Life). The business was so successful that it later expanded into Florida, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas. Herndon went from being a laborer to Atlanta's first black millionaire through his enterprise and determination. He had one son, Norris B. Herndon, who attended both Atlanta University and Harvard University Business School. After entering his father’s business, Norris became formidable in his own right, expanding the company into a multi-million-dollar empire.
5. Earl Gilbert Graves Sr. was born on January 9, 1935. Graves was an American entrepreneur, publisher, businessman, philanthropist, and advocate of African-American businesses. He showed interest in entrepreneurship as early as seven years old when he started selling boxed Christmas cards. Graves graduated from Morgan State University with a degree in Economics and attended Airborne and Ranger Schools. Politically active, he started working as an administrative assistant under Robert Kennedy and later secured a place on the Small Business Advisory Board. Believing that businesses needed to understand issues relevant to black business people and the power of black consumers, he started an annual newsletter that became the foundation of his media company and launched Black Enterprise magazine. Graves later expanded the magazine to include publishing, marketing, radio, television, and event divisions. He held numerous board and director roles with corporations, including Daimler AG and Federated Department Stores, and board positions for organizations such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Graves was also on the Board of Trustees at Howard University. Fortune magazine named Graves one of the 50 most powerful and influential African Americans in corporate America.
To read part two in our two-part series, click here
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