True Reformers Bank, 1889
Image Courtesy of the Virginia Historical Soceity
The Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers was the first bank owned by African Americans in the United States. It was founded on March 2, 1888 by Reverend William Washington Browne and opened on April 3, 1889. Although the True Reformers bank was the first black-owned bank chartered in the United States, the Capitol Savings Bank of Washington, D.C. was the first to actually open on October 17, 1888.
Born in 1849, Browne was a former Georgia slave who escaped joined the Union Army in the North. After the Civil War, he founded the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, a black fraternal organization. In 1887 when Browne visited Charlotte County, Virginia to establish a local branch of the True Reformers, he encountered problems. The branch arranged to keep its savings with a white shopkeeper in the county, but with racial tensions high after an 1887 lynching, the shopkeeper told other white residents that local blacks were organizing and raising funds, and the branch was forced to disband. Browne decided the True Formers would have to found and run a bank itself so that its finances could not be monitored by whites.
The Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers Bank opened a year after its founding, initially operating out of Browne’s home at 105 West Jackson Street in the Jackson Ward district of Richmond, Virginia. The first day’s deposits totaled $1,269.28. In 1891, the bank moved several blocks away to 604-608 North Second Street. The bank grew and survived the financial panic of 1893, during which it was the only bank in Richmond to maintain full operation, honoring all checks and paying out the full value of accounts.
Rev. Browne died in 1897 but the bank continued to thrive after his death, expanding into a number of other services including a newspaper, a real estate agency, a retirement home and a building and loan association. New branches opened as far away as Kansas, and by 1900 the bank was operating in 24 states, owning property valued at a total of $223,500.
After the turn of the century, the bank's prospects began to falter under its new president, Reverend William Lee Taylor. Distant branches were poorly regulated, and the strict rules the bank had required for its operations in its first years were allowed to grow lax. Under Taylor, the bank made large, unsecured loans to finance lodge projects. Those loans often defaulted. When the bank’s cashier, R.T. Hill, was discovered to have embezzled $50,000 from the company, the resulting scandal brought down the bank, and most account holders lost their savings.
The bank examiner of the banking division of the State Corporation Commission ordered the closure of the bank on October 20, 1910. True Reformers Bank was placed into receivership six days later.
William P. Burrell, Twenty Five Years History of the Grand Fountain of
the United Order of the True Reformers: 1881-1905 (New York: Negro
Universities Press, 1909); James D. Watkinson, “William Washington
Browne and the True Reformers of Richmond, Virginia,” The Virginia
Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 97, No. 3 (1989); Savings Bank
of the Grand Fountain, Virginia Historical Society,
University of Sydney, Australia