BankBlack movement aims to boost Black-owned banks

Since this year's protests and movement for racial equality began, there is a renewed campaign to support Black-owned banks.  

Black banks are considered an important part of creating socio-economic equality.

Black-owned banks are sometimes the only source of lending for Black entrepreneurs or a Black family wanting to buy a home.  

But FDIC data shows U.S. Black-owned banks went from 48 in 2001 to just 19 today.

"It was an excellent opportunity to utilize a Black bank," said Denise Hamilton, founder of women's mentorship service WatchHerWork.

Hamilton turned to Texas' only remaining Black-owned bank, Unity National Bank, for her PPP loan rather than one of the big banks.

"I have friends who had the horror stories about not having responsiveness or the process taking a really long time, or being shuffled. I didn't have any of that. The process was quick, painless, they were extremely responsive," said Hamilton.

Black banks, while open to anyone, serve Black communities that may lack banking options.

Laurie Vignaud, the new President of Unity National, writes,"... we are the alternative to payday lenders and title loans and we understand the unique socio-economic needs of our communities. We don’t find reasons to decline loans but offer reasons to approve and support our customers."

Stephone Coward of the BankBlackUSA movement says these banks are needed to counter discrimination in lending.

"You have someone come into the bank and they're like hey, they're looking for lending. And they're asking all these questions prior to even taking out the loan application, to where you have that level of discrimination," said Coward.

But the numbers of Black-owned banks are shrinking, as some have merged with other banks or closed. A Chicago Federal Reserve study found Black-owned banks tend to be smaller and have more non-performing loans.

Vignaud says she plans to move Unity National forward through partnering with Citi Bank and adding new services, such as Transfer Now and Remote Deposit. She says this year's movement has already boosted new accounts from an average of 50 a month to 300 in June.

Added Coward, "We need people to bring their lending there because when you do that when we grow the loan portfolio, we can grow the capital base, right?"

"I think the temptation is to think of Black banks as something that Black people should use, But I want to encourage everybody to support the growth of Black banks," said Hamilton.

Unity National Bank's Laurie Vignaud answered more our questions via email:

•    Talk about the role and importance of Black banks in supporting Black businesses and consumers in the community.

[Laurie Vignaud ]
"Black banks have always played a very important and critical role in supporting black businesses and consumers.  We are often the last bank standing in our black and brown communities and the primary institution providing ‘access to capital’ to black and brown businesses and individuals.  I also offer that we are the alternative to payday lenders and title loans and we understand the unique socio-economic needs of our communities.  We don’t find reasons to decline loans but offer reasons to approve and support our customers.

I’m originally from New Orleans and often tell the story of how I started my ‘banking’ career in the early 1980s at a small minority bank. I started as the Executive Assistant to the President and was allowed the opportunity to be exposed to ALL the divisions within the organization. As a young African American woman, I am beyond confident this would not have been my experience if I was employed by a white institution. And….this black-owned bank also provided me with my first loan after my divorce to purchase a car, to purchase my home(s)…after Hurricane Katrina, and more. Even after my banking career moved me to a much larger financial institution, I continued to used black banks to support my financial needs. That ‘banking relationship’ over the past 30+ years has helped me build my financial foundation. I know firsthand the impact a Black Bank can play in providing ‘access to capital’….and that’s exactly the role Unity National Bank plays in our community. We provide an entry into building a financial career for our young professionals and access to capital to build financial foundations!"

•    Black banks have struggled financially and many have closed.  What do you see as the path forward?

[Laurie Vignaud ]

"Black Banks are typically very small compared to other Minority Depository Institutions and definitely much smaller in size to our non-black peers. There are currently 19 black banks in the United States today and unfortunately, we are often overlooked and forgotten. All our assets combined would only add up to a small white institution of approximately $5 billion. Our size is an impediment. We need capital to grow and customers to use our products and services.

Our path forward includes promoting Unity through opportunities such as this…thank you very much!... and pursuing collaborations and partnerships with larger financial institutions. This will allow Unity to grow our customer base while securing the resources to add the products and services our customers seek. Unity is 57 years old and we have every intention of being around for the next 57+ years."

•    How do you hope to steer Unity National toward a successful future?

[Laurie Vignaud ]

"My team is solely focused on positioning Unity for success.  We have a very dynamic team of associates and wonderful partners working alongside Unity. Citi Bank and others have lined up to support our efforts and we are grateful and excited to call them our partners. We are listening to our customers and adding new products and services like Transfer Now and Remote Deposit which will allow us to expand our customer base. We are committed to promoting this historic institution and reminding everyone of the value we can bring."

•    Is the current BankBlack campaign and equality movement impacting interest or support for Unity National?

[Laurie Vignaud ]

"Yes! The Bank Black campaign has had a  very positive impact on Unity. It has reminded the community of our rich history and as a result, this campaign has helped facilitate a significant increase in the number of new accounts that we have opened in the last 2-3 months. On average, we were opening maybe 50 new accounts a month. We went from 50 per month to 100 per month to over 300 new accounts in the month of June. We are thrilled to see so many young and old joining and re-joining the Unity family! We are sincerely grateful to the BankBlack movement and look forward to advancing our interest in ensuring everyone has ‘access to capital’."