At a time when educated, skilled, and ambitious African Americans were systematically excluded from even middle management positions in large white-controlled businesses, for decades Charles H. Dodge remained one of the extremely rare persons in the nation to occupy a high ranking corporate position in the banking industry.
Dodge was born in Illinois on March 28, 1868, the son of Thomas H. Dodge, a goldminer and farmer, and an unidentified black or biracial mother. Determined to escape the poverty that burdened his family, he enrolled at Fisk University and worked as an unlicensed barber until he graduated. He then moved to St. Louis, Missouri, hoping to study law and become an attorney, but lack of money forced him to accept a janitorial job at the St. Louis Bank and Trust Company. Having taught himself accounting and banking principles he secretly practiced balancing passbooks. When the bank president saw Dodge performing the work of a bank clerk, he promoted him to that post.
Leaving behind 13 years at the bank he resigned but stayed in St. Louis to take a job at the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, 8th District, where he was placed in charge of its law library. Dodge relocated to San Diego, California in 1912 and was hired at South Trust and Commerce Bank where he rose from clerk to cashier and later to bank currency counter when the bank merged with the Bank of Italy and rebranded itself as Bank of America. By the 1930s Dodge held the most prominent position by any black person at a white-owned financial institution in the United States.
Dodge was also a civil rights advocate. He was an acquaintance of Frederick Douglass, but long before he arrived in San Diego he and his wife, Martha Tait Dodge, had been close friends of W.E.B. DuBois who visited their home on two West Coast tours. Dodge was the principal founder of the San Diego branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1917 and served as its president from 1922 to 1923 during which time he liquidated the organization’s debts and put it on a solid financial footing. Dodge was also credited with taking action to broaden California’s revised 1897 civil rights law making it illegal for businesses serving the public to discriminate against non-whites. Though endorsed by a number of prominent individuals across the country, his application for Registrar for the Treasury following the election of President Warren G. Harding was rejected.
Socially conscious and philanthropic, he took up the cause of a Cpl. Harry B. Ivy, a white soldier wrongly accused of rape, paying for the soldier’s legal expenses from his personal funds for more than an decade and ultimately winning the support of President Calvin Coolidge with whom he had a face-to-face meeting about the case. He also led the campaign that won parole for John H. Seiffert, an elderly white physician convicted of murder (abortion death); and gave generously to the reconstruction fund of Sumner High School in St Louis, the first school of its kind west of the Mississippi River dedicated to educating blacks.
In the late 1930s ill health pushed Dodge into retirement. He died in his home in Inglewood, California on December 27, 1942, survived by his wife and son, Charles H. Dodge Jr.