| December 01 2017, 2:52 pm
Browne was an escaped slave, a veteran, a teacher and a minister who was the first black man to charter a bank and sell insurance in America. Walker was a teacher, a social worker and the first woman and black woman to charter a bank and community development organization in America. Both banks began in Richmond, Virginia.
Richmond is about 71 miles from Charlottesville, yet in 1895 Browne’s insurance became so profitable that it enabled him to buy real estate, gain the 1888 bank charter, and start a boon of black businesses. Walker used Browne as a model when she started St. Luke Penny Savings in 1902. Walker said, “Let us put our moneys together…. Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars.” Her bank was the oldest continuous African American bank when it closed in 2009.
Both Browne and Walker believed in pooling resources and helping black people: save money, establish good financial habits and open businesses, so they could survive and thrive in America. They both publicly fought racism and oppression and built up their communities. Between 1888 and 1934 there were 134 black banks. Today, there are 23.
So, what did African Americans do before there were banks open to serving them? They participated in a practice of money pooling that is traced back to West Africa, commonly known as sou-sou. Sou-Sous are short-term, no interest loans among friends. The word is thought to be derived from the Yoruba esesu. Nigeria’s Ibo people call it akawo. But it’s a practice known throughout the world: Japan, tanamoshi; China, hui; Brazil, pandeiros; South Africa, stokvel or quiniela; U.K., partnerhand; Jamaica and Trinidad, partner; Guyana, box hand; Dominica, sub; Dominican Republic, sociedad; Haiti, min; Napal, dhikuti; Somalia, hagbad or ayuuto; Philippines, paluwagan; and, throughout Latin America, tanda.
I once taught a course on race relations at a community college in Trenton, New Jersey. Right in the middle of the city, there was a premiere corner of African American businesses that stood as a shining star of black progress. These fellas got together and they owned the corner right across from an elementary school. Teachers would point across the street with great pride and tell the children, “You can be anything you want to be. You can have anything you want to have.” Then, all of a sudden, a young Asian guy, about 25 years old, owned the corner.
I came in to teach one day and my students were all upset. I couldn’t figure out what they were upset about. They said, “We’re sick of this.” I said, “Sick of what?” They said, “We’re sick of these folk coming from all over the world and the government is giving them money to buy up our neighborhoods and we can’t buy or own our neighborhoods.” There was nothing I could do to convince them that the government didn’t have a special fund for Asians, so I went over to the corner and invited the businessman to speak to my class. He was reluctant but I convinced him.
He told the class he decided at age 16 he wanted to come to America for greater opportunity. He worked and saved his money for a one-way ticket. He flew to New Jersey and found other people from his country and asked if he could live with them for a while. For six months, he slept on their floor. He got a little job. He took half of the money he made each week and sent it back to his family. He saved as much of the rest as possible. He owned only one pair of black pants, two white shirts, one pair of shoes, underwear and a few other necessities. He worked, slept on the floor, worked and saved his money. Then, he decided he wanted to buy a business, which required $30,000, so he joined a meeting. At this point, I interrupted to ask what type of meeting and he described a money pooling group of people from his home country.
Every month they would each bring $2,000 and put it in a pot. There were 15 people, so each month the pot was $30,000 and someone would take the pot. Every month, for 15 months, the group financed a $30,000 acquisition. One guy bought a cleaners, another bought a gas station. When it was his turn, he bought the corner. My students were amazed into silence. Until one woman raised her hand to ask how they knew that the person who took the pot would come back the next month. At first, the young man didn’t even understand the question. The honor system was just part of his culture.
Money pooling once was a strong part of African-American culture too. Some of us know the many reasons the practice was all but forgotten in black communities, including institutional racism. Now, I graduated from the school of complaining about what people did to me and waiting for someone to lift me up. Until I recognized that I was driving a luxury car, broke. Until I looked in my closet and saw that every shirt I owned had a picture of a man on a horse holding a stick. This was a man playing a game that I would never play and didn’t even understand. I realized that if I took that man off my shirts, each would cost $40 less.
At some point, we have to help ourselves. But we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, research shows that individual growth and development occurs more easily when you do it in a group. We need today’s William Washington Brownes and today’s Maggie Lena Walkers. We need to lean on each other to prosper.