A life of grit, gut-instinct and glory

In honor of Black History Month, we are honoring key members of the African American community who have made a lasting impact on the financial industry. Robert Reed Church led an extraordinary life of grit, gut-instinct and ultimately glory. Son of a slave and a river boat captain, Church rose to such social and financial prominence that he has continued to wield influence long after his death 109 years ago. While working as a porter, he survived both a shipwreck and capture by Union soldiers during the Civil War. Dropped off by them in Memphis, he began building his fortune by purchasing and successfully managing a saloon. During the Memphis Race Riot, he was shot and left for dead outside his own establishment while his assailants ransacked the place – smashing bottles, breaking furniture and stealing cash and merchandise. He not only survived the assault, he vowed to rebuild in the same spot and, from there he launched a career that made him a millionaire and transformed the city he loved. He stayed in Memphis when nearly everyone else fled the city during a Yellow Fever epidemic, then he purchased the property they left behind. Among his holdings was a tract of land along Beale Street on which he built a large auditorium that later hosted world-famous entertainers and several U.S. presidents. His development also included property he had landscaped into a park with a playground. Following that epidemic, Memphis lost the majority of its tax base, so Church stepped up and became the first citizen to buy a bond for one thousand dollars to restore the City Charter. He helped found the first black-owned and operated bank in Memphis and avoided a run on it during the 1907 Panic by placing bags of money in its windows with signs assuring depositors that he had adequate reserves. He built a mansion that remained in his family until 1953 when it… | Read More »

A Pleasant capitalist and fearless activist

In honor of Black History Month, we are honoring key members of the African American community who have made a lasting impact on the financial industry. An astute investor and talented chef, Mary Ellen Pleasant did not mince words. Asked to list her profession in the 1890 census, Pleasant wrote “Capitalist”, both an accurate and lofty label for the former slave. She famously received a letter from a pastor in which he addressed her as “Mammy Pleasant,” a nickname she despised. “I wrote back to him on his own paper that my name was Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant. I wouldn’t waste any of my paper on him,” she reportedly said. Born into slavery and then sold as an indentured servant, Pleasant and her eventual business partner amassed a fortune of more than $30 million, which she used to help fund the abolitionist movement. In fact, she wrote and initialed a note found in abolitionist John Brown’s pocket after he was hanged for murder and treason. She also had given him $30,000 for the cause and promised to send more as needed. Pleasant began building her fortune by taking advantage of her combined talents for catering and self-education. She opened her own restaurant in San Francisco and eventually bought several restaurants, boarding houses and laundries all with the goal of employing freed slaves. An important conductor on the Underground Railway, Pleasant earned the title “Black City Hall”, because she so regularly granted start-up funds and found jobs for San Francisco’s African American population. Working with a white man named Thomas Bell, Pleasant also invested in silver and together they became extremely successful. Though she initially passed as a white woman, Pleasant updated her race affiliation on the census after the Civil War, saying “I’d rather be a corpse than a coward.” In the late 1860s, she successfully sued two railway companies in San Francisco for discrimination, which led to San Francisco… | Read More »

The legacy of Alonzo Herndon

In honor of Black History Month, we are honoring key members of the African American community who have made a lasting impact on the financial industry. History loves rule-changers, game-changers and world-changers, and Alonzo Franklin Herndon elegantly achieved all three. Born into slavery in 1858, Herndon rose to become Georgia’s first black millionaire and he built an industry along the way. Recognizing a need for low-to-moderate income earners to have access to life insurance, Herndon founded Atlanta Life Insurance Company with a $140 investment. Today, that company spans 17 states and remains the only African-American owned and privately held stock company in the country with a financial services platform that includes asset management and insurance. Emancipated as a small boy following the Civil War, Herndon and his family began their free life in abject poverty. They all worked as sharecroppers and young Alonzo also helped out by peddling goods and working odd jobs. Due to these financial constraints, he managed just one year of formal education in his entire life. He reportedly left his hometown with just $11, which he used to begin learning how to become a barber. A quick learner with a natural business mind, he eventually owned three highly successful barber shops in and around Atlanta. The flagship shop, called the Crystal Palace, featured gold fixtures, marble floors and crystal chandeliers, and catered to the city’s elite white businessmen. In a painful irony, Herndon could not enter the front door of his own business due to Jim Crowe Laws. Still, he saw his customer base as opportunities to learn, he enjoyed picking their brains while he cut their hair and he used this knowledge to build an astonishing legacy. He began purchasing real estate and eventually owned 100 properties, including a stately mansion he helped design that became his family’s home. Today, you can tour that home and appreciate its fine details. In 1908 Herndon bought a… | Read More »

The remarkable rise of Maggie Lena Walker and her community

In honor of Black History Month, we are honoring key members of the African American community who have made a lasting impact on the financial industry. Maggie Lena Walker became this country’s first female African American bank president when she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1902. She also established a newspaper and department store, all in an effort to provide a path toward financial success for the African American community in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Walker, who worked as a teacher during the day and took accounting classes at night in the early days of her career, said, “I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth but instead with a clothes basket almost [always] on my head.” According to her 1934 obituary, Walker’s mother was a former slave-turned-assistant cook in a private home, while her biological father, Irish immigrant Eccles Cuthbert, was an abolitionist and journalist, and the man who raised her, William Mitchell, was a butler. Through grit and guile, Walker grew to be one of the most financially successful and influential members of her community. According to a 1902 article in The Negro Advocate, Walker was an eloquent and persuasive speaker. “For fifteen minutes  . . . such a speech, persuasive, musical and eloquent fell from her [Walker’s] lips as she called upon the black men of Virginia to stand up for their rights, to fight slavery, to live for their children and hers, caused old men and young men to weep.” . . .Closing, the house fairly quivered under the thunderous applause, while many who could grasped their hands as she passed from the chancel to the door, invoking God’s blessings upon her.” Her ambition transcended her own family and encompassed the world around. She spoke up for equality of both races and genders, explaining that by building and supporting their own businesses, African Americans could “kill the lion of… | Read More »