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By Mbaluka Michael Mutinda
Currently, the United States is home to 42 Black-owned banks, as reported by the Urban Institute. This figure marks a decline from the peak of over 100 Black-owned banks that were present in the country around the turn of the previous century.
The period between 1888 to 1930 saw the establishment of well over 100 Black-owned banks in communities across the United States. Historically, these financial institutions emerged as a direct response to the exclusionary practices and policies of the Jim Crow era.
Confronted by such challenges, African Americans took matters into their own hands by building and operating banks designed specifically to cater to the unique needs of their communities. These banks played a crucial role in offering personal credit, business loans, family mortgages, and educational opportunities, thus fostering the development of an emerging Black middle class.
Remarkably, these banking communities not only retained Black wealth within their own communities but also generally outperformed larger white institutions of the era during economic downturns.
Oklahoma’s Black-owned banks
By the time Oklahoma was formally admitted as a U.S. state in 1907, Black Oklahomans had already made major advancements in the economic sphere. While many are now familiar with the fortunes of Greenwood in Tulsa, there remains a wealth of untold stories about the extent and magnitude of prosperity across Oklahoma’s all-Black towns, such as Boley.
Despite having a population of only 4,000 at its zenith in the 1910s, Boley yielded an immense economic influence that encompassed its own electricity generating facility, 82 businesses including retailers, hotels, several doctors, dentists and legal practices, a movie theater, a local newspaper, and notably, for my own personal interest, two Black-owned banks.
One of these was the Farmers and Merchants Bank of Boley, established shortly after Oklahoma gained statehood by pharmacist and successful businessman David J. Turner. This bank played a pivotal role in driving the town’s prosperity. By 1911, Boley was already earning the moniker of the Wealthiest Negro City in the world, the crown jewel among the All Black Towns of Oklahoma.
And by the next decade, the Farmers and Merchants Bank had secured the distinction of being the first Black-owned bank with a national charter in the United States of America, granting it the authority to provide banking services across the nation under the same charter privileges as white-owned national banks. A significant milestone in America’s banking history.
Gratitude for the ancestors
I had the honor of visiting the Farmers and Merchants historic site in Boley, Oklahoma. The town is located approximately 65 miles southwest of Tulsa and is embraced by the charm of low gentle hills, lush greenery and the distinctive and captivating beauty of Oklahoma’s rural vistas.
Boley is one of many all-Black towns in Oklahoma that emerged alongside the railway which connected Guthrie, Oklahoma to Fort Smith, Arkansas. These towns transformed into vibrant hubs of trade, hosting a diverse range of Black-owned enterprises and extensive networks of commerce that reached throughout the entirety of the United States.
As I stood before the historic merchant bank building, I was struck by its dignified presence and storied past. I couldn’t help but think of the age-old saying, “If these walls could talk.”
Countless questions, curiosities, and reflections flooded my mind. What were the stories of the visionary men and women who, over a century ago, dared to build and expand a nationally chartered bank in Oklahoma? Who were their clientele? Their business supporters? Their business detractors? What perspectives shaped their worldviews? How far did they aspire to carry their vision?
Building Black for a new generation
Amidst these contemplations of the ambitious banking endeavors of Boley, a sense of profound gratitude washed over me. Suddenly, the immediate queries seemed inconsequential, and all I wanted to express was gratitude. Gratitude to the trailblazers of the past who not only envisioned a prosperous future for Black communities but also actively forged the path towards it. Gratitude to the descendants who generously shared the history and business traditions of Boley.
And gratitude to the countless present-day Black founders, including dozens of Black-owned banking and financial technology companies based in Oklahoma, who, to this day, are steadfastly working towards a future that encompasses the aspirations of us all.
Mbaluka is a founder and CEO at DUKAPAQ, an Africa focused fintech company based in Tulsa, OKlahoma. He has more than 7 years of experience in fintech, with an industry focus on Point of Sale (PoS) technology. Mbaluka grew up in Dallas, Texas and is an alumni of Stephen F. Austin State University