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.
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.