On March 3, Operation HOPE, a financial literacy and activism non-profit, and the Afro-American Historical Society of the National Archives commemorated the Freedman’s Bank. This financial institution was signed into existence by President Abraham Lincoln, 150 years ago to help freed slaves establish themselves monetarily.
Operation HOPE’s CEO John Hope Bryant participated in a forum that was held at the National Archives, and was joined by former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young; the Rev. Dr. Bernice King, daughter of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; journalist Donna Owens; Roland Martin, host of TV One’s News One Now show; and Barry Wides, deputy comptroller of community affairs for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, to talk about how Blacks can use the experience of Freedman’s Bank to improve their financial condition.
“At the end of the day,” Martin said “it’s all about money in America.”
Young said Lincoln was pressured by Black leader Frederick Douglass to help former slaves become commercially viable. “Douglass told Lincoln that in addition to making sure that former slaves have the right to vote, they also needed access to capital,” Young said. “As a result, Blacks got the Freedman’s Bank and then they [federal government] pulled the rug under it.”
Lincoln was assassinated five weeks after signing the Freedman’s bill and his successor, Andrew Johnson, worked to undermine it. At one point, Douglass was asked to run the institution but it failed in 1874 because of lack of support in the Congress and the White House.
During its existence, Freedman’s Bank had over $57 million in deposits and 70,000 depositors in both southern and northern cities.
King said while her father focused on voting rights and equal access to public facilities for Blacks, he didn’t ignore the economic plight of Blacks. “The first thing my father had to work on was desegregating the South,” she said. “After that, he began to look at the condition of poor people economically and how unfair the income disparities were. That’s when the trouble began because when you start talking about money, it becomes threatening to some people.”
Young, who worked for Martin Luther King before becoming the first African-American elected to the Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction and the first Black U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said his late boss was “fine until he started talking about money.”
“When Martin talked about economic justice, he became a serious threat,” Young said. “However, Dr. King was determined to die for the poor.”
Wides said his agency is working to create incentives so banks will want to do business in minority neighborhoods and to make sure the nation’s credit and lending laws are being enforced.
Owens said that Blacks need to do a better job of retirement planning. “If you asked African Americans about retirement, 50-70 percent say that they want to live a life of leisure in their golden years but when it comes to planning for it, few have,” she said. “That has to change.”
During the one-hour discussion, Young shared a candid moment in his life. He had just completed his service as ambassador and was contemplating running for mayor of Atlanta. A female member of his church convinced him to hire her as his family’s financial advisor. Young said that the advisor helped him straighten out his family’s financial situation and he noted the irony at that time.
“I was one of the most important Negro leaders in the world and I was banking like an ignorant n—-r,” he said to the laughter of the 75 audience members.
Bryant announced that his organization is working to establish 1,000 Operation HOPE inside satellites in financial institutions across the country by 2020. These centers will offer financial literacy courses and some products that are designed to help Black consumers with their credit rating and being eligible for bank loans.