During the recession of 2008 and the years after, many black-owned banks that were hit hard had to shut down. By 2010, the number of African American-owned banks had dwindled down from the 55 it was in 1994 to 34. Today, the number stands at just 21.
As black-owned banks started disappearing from underserved neighborhoods and communities around the country, Unity National Bank, Texas’ solitary black-owned bank kept its doors open, in part because its own board members and shareholders invested their own personal capital.
“They weren’t willing to let go of its historic and symbolic significance,” Tommy Brooks, Unity National Bank’s CFO told the Houston Chronicle.
Fast forward a few years later, Unity National Bank, in a rare business move for a minority-owned bank, opened its first out-of-state location in Atlanta. Although Houston’s housing market during the recession wasn’t as dire as the rest of the country, ensuring the bank didn’t suffer as many losses as its out-of-state competitors, it was the national movement to #BankBlack that has pushed the bank into the green.
It all started in the summer of 2016. Police had shot Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The next day, news broke that an unarmed Philando Castile had also been shot dead by cops in Minnesota. An uprising of protests engulfed American cities, as protesters called for the end of the criminalization of blackness and social justice reforms. A few days later, in a televised town hall, rapper and activist, Michael Render, popularly known as Killer Mike, echoed what the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement has been saying all along: take control of the community’s wealth and through investments, build something sustainable in the long term.
“If you’re truly able, keep your big bank account with the big national banks because you may have to travel in and out of state, in and out of the country, but make sure that you take a portion of your money, you put it in a small black bank or credit union and for the next two, three, four to five years, you watch that money accumulate,” Render said in the phone-in segment on BET and MTV.
Render even went further to explain which ones to bank with, calling out the names of black-owned banks by location and requesting up to 1 million people open up accounts starting with a $100 commitment.
“If one million people, instead of buying Jordans or caps or whatever thing is cool this month…one million black people find one black banking institution…start a $100 or more account. You can go cheap with $20 but $100 is where I’d like you to start,” he said.
The #BankBlack movement took off.
In Atlanta alone, at Citizens Trust Bank, 8,000 people took the challenge, bringing in about $800,000 in deposits to the institution in five days. Celebrities such as Solange, Jessie Williams, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Queen Latifah, Usher and more all joined the conversation, urging black Americans to move their money to black-owned banks.
More than 350 people, some traveling from out-of-state, waited in line to open new accounts at Unity National Bank after Render’s announcement, the Chronicle said. In September 2017, the bank reported assets of more than $98 million, up from $84 million in the same period a year earlier. Between 2015 and 2017, it reported an 18.4% increase in assets making it one of the top-performing African American-owned banks in the U.S., according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
The largest black-owned bank in the U.S., One United Bank, which is also a Community Development Institution (CDFI) and the first internet black bank partnered with #BlackMoneyMatters in Los Angeles to host a first-time account opening event at its Crenshaw branch in Los Angeles.
“In history, movements pop-up that change the trajectory of a given industry,” Michael Cunningham, a D.C.-based economist and banking expert told the Chronicle.
The push from #BankBlack is still being felt today with residents in and out of Texas requesting new branches be open, Sherifat Lawal, assistant vice president of Lending at Unity said. More than 500 people attended the Atlanta opening on March 28, including U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Atlanta Mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms.
“By providing opportunities to achieve financial success, businesses like Unity National Bank help build equity into the fabric of our community,” Bottoms said in a statement. “Having a bank that understands the needs of the unbanked and that specializes in serving African American entrepreneurs is an essential part of my administration’s goal to build one Atlanta.”