The day before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, he urged the strengthening of black institutions.
“I call upon you to take your money out of the banks downtown and deposit your money in Tri-State Bank. We want a ‘bank-in’ movement in Memphis. […] We begin the process of building a greater economic base. And at the same time, we are putting pressure where it really hurts.”
That same year, what would become one of the largest black-owned banks opened up in Boston. Known as the Unity Bank & Trust Company, over the next 50 years, it combined with two black-owned banks in Los Angeles and one right here in Miami, together forming OneUnited.
Located in Liberty City, OneUnited Bank is the only one of its kind in South Florida, and one of two in the entire state. There are only 21 nationwide.
It doesn’t look like your typical bank. Murals decorate the walls, memorializing people from Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown to the firefighters that saved lives in the 9/11 attacks. And it’s all painted by local artist Addonis Parker. Local art dons the walls inside the bank, too.
It’s all part of being a bank that’s for the community, by the community, according to Teri Williams, the president and chief operating officer.
Today, as black leaders around the country are once again calling for moving money into black institutions as a way to demonstrate solidarity and build wealth in black communities, we spoke with Williams about why black money matters.
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
How did today’s Black Money Matters movement begin?
The movement picked up steam … when Killer Mike (an African-American rapper) made a call to action and summoned the black community to move their money to black-owned banks (in July 2016). Since then, we’ve started to see a surge in businesses, from 50 new accounts a day to 1,000 new accounts a day.
It’s been a significant increase in volume, but even before that we had really made the decision that we weren’t trying to be a black “Bank of America.” We were something unique. We realized that in order for us to be effective in terms of talking to our community and getting them to understand the power [of banking at a black owned bank] we had to speak in our authentic voice.
We had a mural painted on the bank to represent the urban community. Our message is that we want to authentically represent the urban community with the theme of hope and freedom. It has a sense of hope for the future, it’s not all dark but it does represent the full range of experience that we have in urban communities.
When Killer Mike made that call to action, we didn’t have to do anything differently. The sentiment was already there, but it allowed us to connect with people that didn’t know a black owned bank existed or why they should bank with us.
And why should they bank with you?
The black dollar or black income is valued at $1.2 trillion a year, but only 2 percent of that is spent in the black communities. Our annual spending is more than some countries in the world. Imagine a country where 98 percent of the money is spent somewhere else — what you would have is a very poor country. That’s what’s happening.
If the community starts spending more money within our community, hiring black electricians and architects and going to stores owned by black-owned business, we can build wealth in our community. I think that also has implications for us in terms of education.
We have all the same services that Bank of America has — online banking, depositing checks electronically, debit cards — it’s not as though there is a tax, for lack of a better word, for banking with us.
If you’re asking people to invest in you, how will you invest in them? How will you give back?
In banking and financial services, there are ways in which [banks] are taxing our community by overcharging us with fees, offering products and services — like prepaid debit cards. If you have bad credit, this doesn’t help you rebuild your credit. Our community is being overcharged and it’s taking wealth out of the community for products and services that should be free.
We are not taking advantage of the community by overcharging or offering subprime loans or any other predatory practices … I don’t call it giving back because we’re just being a good bank.
[Community members] are being taken by other financial service providers in our community — for example, by having a bank account you don’t have to pay to get your check cashed and you can rebuild your credit.
We also partner with nonprofits to help people and educate them in financial literacy and help them prepare for products and services that not only we offer, but that the city, county, and state offer. We do community outreach to get people on the pathway to homeownership. …
One of the important messages we’re trying to send to the black community is that we can’t address our unemployment predicament if we don’t focus on black businesses. In addition to being a bank, we’re also a black-owned business. Black-owned business are more likely to be located in black communities.
The lack of a thriving economy within the black community is a problem. If you drive around [this neighborhood] what you see is few storefront businesses, small manufacturing businesses, not a lot of places for people to be employed in their neighborhood. That has to change because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to address the economic challenges we’ve faced.
Where do non-black folks fit into this movement?
Everyone is welcome to open an account with us. It’s an excellent question and one that is a reflection of how people may perceive black banks. There are Hispanic American owned banks, Asian American owned banks, and if you go into those institutions you’ll see their languages and even in some cases their name is in their language, like Banco Popular. They welcome Hispanic Americans, but there’s also sort of an assumption that they welcome everyone — but when you say black-owned bank, that’s not the message.
We’re trying to give a different message. It’s important for the black community to know [OneUnited] exists, not only start banking with us. We’re trying to speak to our community to say “you need to bank”, and to start by banking a black owned bank.
But it’s not to say to everyone else “We don’t want you to bank with us.” We are open to everyone, we’re an equal housing lender and want allies of this effort and movement to bank with us. At the same time, we want to make sure that there’s a benefit to you banking and it helps build wealth in our community which is in need of wealth building.
What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?
It means a fight for equal justice. A fight for fair [treatment] and a just criminal justice system. Stop killing us. For me, personally, it means that I would like to not have to be in fear every moment because I have a 20 year-old black son who is six feet two inches and almost 300 pounds and every time he walks out of the house I have to be concerned that he’s not going to come back.
You mentioned earlier that business has gone up significantly since Killer Mike’s call to action. Since a bank is a business, is Black Money Matters profiting off of today’s civil rights movement?
If you look back at the history of the African American community, our fight for civil rights has always included the need to garner our spending power and channel it back into our community. If you look at Martin Luther King Jr.’s last epic speech he gave “I’ve been to the Mountaintop,” the day before he died, in that speech he said take your money and put it in the Tri-State bank (a black-owned bank in Memphis that played an important role in the civil rights movement).
Even before the Black Lives Matters movement — if you go back in history — all of these civil right leaders have understood the importance of us garnering our purchasing power and channeling it into our community.
We didn’t have the tools to do it then. But now there are 21 black owned banks. They exist in different communities. Previously, you had to travel to a bank and bring your money physically. It was a great idea but the execution of it was very difficult. Today that’s not the case because of technology. Now, this movement can happen. In fact what would say is the black money matters movement is actually an extension or partner with the Black Lives Matters movement. … The reality is that money talks and I’ve said this before. If a million people open $100 savings accounts, that would mean $100 million will move.
That speaks loudly about who we are as a people. The fact that we can move that kind of money as a bank — I’m not going to make a lot of money in fact it’s probably going to cost me money to have a million $100 savings accounts.
That’s not really the point. The point is to really say to the broader community that our money matters, and to our own community that our money matters, and we need to use our money in a purposeful way. I think historically, money and the movement of money, within our community has always been a part of the civil rights movement. Today it’s even more important and even more convenient.