In 1926, American historian Carter G. Woodson organized the first Negro History Week. Woodson chose the second week of February to mark the birthdates of two legendary abolitionist leaders: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Fifty years later, President Gerald Ford officially recognized all of February as Black History Month, declaring it an opportunity to “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Since then, Americans have celebrated Black History Month by honoring activists, scholars, artists, entertainers, athletes, and more–but one area in which the Black community’s achievements often remain overlooked is finance.
Here are five Black Americans we’re honoring at Vested this Black History Month. These financial professionals may not be household names, but we think you’ll agree their accomplishments deserve recognition:
1. Maggie Lena Walker
In 1903, Maggie Lena Walker became the first Black woman in the United States to establish and serve as president of a bank when she opened St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia. By 1924, the Penny Savings Bank had expanded to include more than 50,000 members across the state. Under Walker’s leadership, the bank survived the Great Depression, eventually consolidating with two other large financial institutions and relocating to downtown Richmond. The bank remains in operation to this day as the oldest continuously African-American owned bank in the U.S, now called Consolidated Bank and Trust.
2. O.W. Gurley
O.W. Gurley played an instrumental role in the formation of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the early 20th century. Gurley not only purchased the 40 acres of land in Tulsa’s Greenwood District, but he also provided financing and support to other Black business owners in the area—from brickyards and theaters to a chartered airplane company. His own business ventures included the Gurley Hotel and two other local commercial buildings, and he was a founding member of the Vernon AME Church.
By 1921, Black Wall Street was a thriving, self-sustaining business district and Gurley was one of the wealthiest men in Tulsa. But that spring, a mob of white citizens burned the neighborhood to the ground during the Tulsa Race Massacre. Gurley survived the massacre, but the flourishing community he had helped create did not, and he ultimately relocated to Los Angeles.
3. Ernesta Procope
After founding the Brooklyn-based E.G. Bowman insurance company in the 1950s, Ernesta Procope relocated the business to Manhattan, where it became the first Black-owned business on Wall Street in 1979. E.G. Bowman grew into the largest minority-owned insurance company in the U.S., with a client roster including PepsiCo Inc., Avon Products, Philip Morris International, Time Warner Inc., Tiffany & Co. and General Motors Co. Procope also became an advocate for extending fair insurance coverage to low-income families by way of insurance reform.
4. Joseph L. Searles III
The first Black floor broker and member of the New York Stock Exchange was Joseph L. Searles III in February of 1970. Prior to joining the NYSE, Searles served as Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Economic Development Administration, where he helped establish minority small businesses and other enterprises by hosting America’s first minority franchising fair in 1969. Throughout his career, he worked with the Federal government and numerous state and municipal agencies on housing, economic development and urban affairs. Searles also served as a vice president of the Public Finance Department at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company (now J. P. Morgan Chase).
5. Clifton Wharton Jr.
Clifton Wharton Jr. experienced many firsts throughout his career, centered around education and finance. In 1970 Wharton became the first African American President of Michigan State University and after eight years in the role he moved on to lead the largest university system at the time, the State University of New York. During this time Wharton oversaw 64 campuses and a yearly budget of over 2.5 billion dollars. In 1982 he made history again when he was named chairman of the Rockefeller Foundation, to later become one of the first African American CEOs of a major Fortune 500 company TIAA-CREF, which operates the world’s largest pension funds holding assets of $260 billion in 1987. Finally, having received numerous presidential appointments, he was appointed by President Clinton as the Deputy Secretary of State, the first African American to ever hold this second-highest foreign policy post in 1993.
As the Vested team reflects on and appreciates Black Americans’ accomplishments this February, we are especially proud to honor these five individuals for their contributions to the field of finance. These are only a few of the many Black professionals, entrepreneurs and business leaders who have overcome significant obstacles to achieve remarkable financial success.