William Washington Browne, a slave freed after the Civil War, created an economic empire founded and run by the black community known as The Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers. Instead of fighting for social equality, Browne devoted most of his time, strength, and energy to advancing the black community while simultaneously desiring to remain completely separate from white Richmonders. However, James D. Watkinson, a research librarian at the Library of Virginia, notes that “he [Browne] disliked being under white control, even if only nominally. Browne struggled throughout his life to define a satisfying relationship between blacks and whites, trying to separate himself from whites, yet constantly pointing to them as models and seeking their approval.”
True Reformers’ Bank in Jackson Ward
In 1888, the True Reformers received a charter from the state to establish a black-owned and black-operated bank: the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain, United Order of True Reformers. Browne’s empire flourished in Jackson Ward, a black neighborhood north of downtown Richmond, separated from most of the white citizens. This physical distance greatly decreased the amount of time that the True Reformers interacted with white Richmonders. William Washington Browne and his followers had seen the horrors of the Civil War and made the decision that the potential for racial conflict greatly outnumbered the potential for any alliances. This racial landscape is still seen today in the city’s West End and East End. The West End is a predominantly white, wealthy, and educated area. Its neighborhoods boast successful private schools and locally owned stores that bring life and character to the community. The predominantly African-American, uneducated, and low-income East End is not as impressive. This area contains poorly funded public schools with aging buildings, high drop out rates, and inadequate teachers.
Browne’s story echoes many of the changes that were occurring around the city. Black Richmonders were gaining more equality and becoming a more prominent part of the city’s culture. The white community, largely motivated by unwarranted racism and a reluctance to change, was not accepting of this progression, especially during the nineteenth century.
AFRICANGLOBE – The history of The Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers tells a fascinating story about the struggles and triumphs of a former Georgia slave who founded the first ever black-owned bank in America. Founded in 1888 by Reverend William Washington Browne, the bank opened the very next year with deposits on the first day totaling $1,269.28.
The Founder Of The First Ever Black-Owned Bank Was Once A Slave!
Rev. William Washington Browne, founder of first black-owned bank From slave to bank owner
Reverend William Washington Browne established the bank to serve the financial interests of Black depositors. He wanted a bank that would serve to protect the finances of Black clients to ensure their finances could not be monitored by whites.
The name of the bank came from the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, a Black fraternal organization established by Browne in 1849. Racial tension remained high after the Civil War, so Browne established the first Black-owned bank in Richmond, Virginia, which initially operated out of his home. Two years later, the bank moved to its location several blocks away at 604-608 North Second Street.
Thrived despite the economic depression
The bank did very well. When the U.S. economic depression of 1893 hit and people were panicking and rushing to the banks to withdraw their money, Browne’s bank was one of the few that survived. In fact, it was the only bank in Richmond that was able to pay out the full value of it’s customers’ accounts and remain in full operation.
After Browne’s death in 1897, the bank continued in operation. It also expanded into other areas, such as newspaper, real estate, a retirement home and a building and loan association. It’s growth included operations in 24 states.
However, under the new president, Reverend William Lee Taylor, the bank was mismanaged, often making unsecured loans which defaulted. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a bank embezzlement of $50,000 by the bank’s cashier. By 1910, the State Corporation Commission ordered the bank closed. But, it remains in history as the first bank owned by African Americans in the United States.