Next month, the façade of OneUnited Bank’s Liberty City branch in Miami will unveil a huge mural created by Addonis Parker, a local artist, and his 21 teenage interns. As part of the OneUnited Mural Project, the aspiring artists have the chance to get hands-on experience developing and showcasing their craft.
“OneUnited does things in the community that’s different from what other banks do,” Teri Williams, president of OneUnited, told us in a phone interview. With $620 million in assets across bank locations in Miami, Boston and Los Angeles, OneUnited is the largest Black-owned bank in the country. To put that into perspective, Bank of America had $2.1 trillion in assets as of October 2014.
To hear Williams talk about it, Black banks are like other banks. But Black banks also face their own set of unique struggles and mandates.
“Black banks, just like a lot of community banks, were hit hard by the recession,” said Williams. The problems that banks like OneUnited faced in the immediate aftermath of the downturn were compounded by the fact that their clientele are largely low-to-moderate income people. These groups were hurt by sweeping job cuts and had to dip into their savings to keep afloat.
But now the economy is on the upswing. Even though issues of unemployment among Blacks persist, there are jobs being created, wages are slowly starting to rise, and consumer confidence is beginning to grow. According to Williams, OneUnited is poised to take advantage of the improving economic situation.
“We started investing in technology about 15 years ago,” she told us. “Over time, we’re able to offer mobile banking and other things that people expect. Many banks waited and now have to make larger investments than if they’d been doing it all along.”
Optimistically, Williams says that “Black banks are turning a corner” alongside the communities they serve. But that’s not exactly the vibe you get when you look at the media. Beneath a sub-head that reads, “Once the only options in their communities, America’s Black banks are nearly extinct,” Crain’s New York Business published a story in March outlining the efforts to keep that city’s largest Black bank, Carver Federal, open. This despite growing economic fortunes in Harlem.
“Since 1987, three-quarters of the nation’s 91 African-American banks have disappeared,” the article says. “The most recent casualty came last month [February], when regulators closed Atlanta’s Capitol City Bank & Trust after years of losses. In January, Chicago’s Highland Community Bank met the same fate.” There are now 24 left in the US. There were 41 Black-owned banks in 2007.
Carver opened in 1948. A few missteps over the past few years — Carver lost $60 million between 2011 and 2012 says Crain’s, but only reported $20 million in earnings since 1994 — put the bank in need of help from the federal government. However, in the case of Carver, to turn things around, they also had to sell a portion of the business.
“[E]xisting Carver shareholders, many of them Harlem residents who for decades had turned to the bank for mortgages or savings accounts, were left with just a 2% stake,” writes Crain’s. “The nation’s largest African-American-run bank was no longer African-American-owned.”
While the future is turning around for Carver, local business that should have gone to the bank is has bypassed it.
That Crain’s story includes a chart showing how much in assets Black banks have. The smallest has just $24 million. The question — much like the one that is asked often of HBCUs — is do we need Black banks?
“It’s important for anyone to bank with institutions they trust and they feel is there to help them build wealth and financial stability,” said OneUnited’s Williams. “Black banks have a history of servicing the communities we’re in and being a trusted source.” To that end, Crain’s notes that Carver has a financial literacy program. So does OneUnited.
OneUnited also has the aforementioned teen art program and a summer school program. The bank has also introduced a secure credit card to help customers rebuild credit, the Unity Visa. They also make a point of cashing and depositing checks in the order that they come to avoid costly overdraft fees. And they try to avoid what Williams calls the “complex products and services” that you find at larger banks that can take advantage of customers. Finally, OneUnited never offered subprime loans.
“We recognized that they weren’t good things,” she said.
Besides serving the needs of clients, Black banks are also an important visual.
“Banking is symbolic of the health of a community,” said Williams, who notes that Asian and Hispanic banks typically have more money in assets than Black banks.
NerdWallet says Hispanics only control 15 banks. Asian-Americans own 40 banks.
“It’s important for us as a community and how we handle our money is partially reflected by our banks,” adds Williams.
You don’t even have to put all of your money in one institution. You can spread your money out in accounts across multiple banks.
One could argue that part of that visual is also speaking with the media to talk about the virtues of Black banks in general and an individual bank specifically. MadameNoire reached out to a number of banks for comment about how they’re doing since the recession and how they’re reviving their businesses. OneUnited is the only bank that agreed to speak with us. Carver, Broadway Federal and Seaway declined to comment. Industrial Bank never responded. A couple of banks that we sought to contact didn’t have information for press inquiries posted anywhere on their websites.
Now certainly, that doesn’t mean that OneUnited is perfect or that the media coverage has been wholly positive. This story from the Boston Globe talks about the “Needs to Improve” rating that the bank got from the regulators enforcing the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to make loans in the communities where they accept deposits. Kevin Cohee, the CEO of the bank, told the Globe he didn’t think the rating was “fair or accurate.”
“I think whether it’s OneUnited or Bank of America, you have to continue to work directly with the media,” added Williams in our interview with her. But that’s not all. “You talk to people in the community. That’s what we’re focused on. That’s what comes with doing good things. You can’t focus on the media.”
The future of many Black banks appears to be up in the air. But just today, OneUnited tweeted that the bank is sponsoring a startup event in the Roxbury section of Boston and Williams will be there. So while the bank is also focusing on its banking services, there’s also a measure of community service that happens as well.
“I don’t think this is the death of Black banks,” Williams told us. “I think we will be here, but we need to come up with new ways to serve.”