Freedman’s Bank Legacy Continues to Advance Economic Integration
By John Hope Bryant, Founder, Chairman, and CEO, Operation HOPE, Inc.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Treasury commemorated the legacy of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company with the renaming of a building—a rare occurrence on the White House campus.
Established by President Abraham Lincoln more than 150 years ago to create economic opportunity for newly emancipated African-Americans, the vital institution, known as the U.S. Treasury Annex was renamed the Freedman’s Bank Building.
The original pursuit of the Freedman’s Bank lives on today—symbolizing the aspirations of African-Americans, and, largely, people of all races living in underserved communities throughout the nation, to become fully integrated in our nation’s economic life.
In many ways, the legacy of the Freedman’s Bank is directly representative in Operation HOPE’s mission to build an economy that works for all, with the belief that everyone deserves a life filled with financial dignity and opportunity. Operation HOPE served as a catalyst in the building’ s historic renaming, embracing a commitment to ensure more Americans have the financial tools and education to build a secure future.
For over 25 years Operation HOPE has worked to equip clients with the fundamentals to build their own businesses, raise their credit scores, buy homes, or simply make better decisions with the money they have—helping people understand that effectively handling money, credit, debt, and risk are crucial to economic survival and sustainability.
The financial dignity and empowerment programming models we’ve constructed, packaged, and deployed, to youth and adults, globally, focus on actionable steps to ensure that all people receive the “memo on money”—that they are empowered, with jobs, financial literacy education, and economic access, to effectively participate in the free enterprise system.
You see, many of our underserved communities across the country are in bondage—restrained by a lack of financial know-how and economic opportunity; stifled by predatory lending and low credit scores. Modern-day slavery in underserved communities, including communities right here in metro Atlanta, looks something like this: a check casher, next to a payday lender, next to a rent-to-own store, next to a liquor store.
These establishments prey on 500-credit score customers, of all races. They prey on the young father who worked, took care of his family, but took out a $300 payday loan, only to end up owing $1,300 six weeks later with effectively a 651% interest rate. They prey on the young people seeking direction, who don’t understand that the economy is built on small business, by entrepreneurs—regular individuals just like them—who make small companies big.
A series of events in the nation’s capital held during the last weekend of September, marked the completion of the decades-long development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. With this historic milestone in the backdrop, the Treasury Department hosted the Freedman’s Bank Forum on Sept. 23—bringing together public, private, and nonprofit leaders to discuss strategies to improve economic opportunity, financial inclusion, and shared prosperity for all communities.
Though never acknowledged, civil rights and “silver rights” have always been connected. President Lincoln recognized it with the founding of the Freedman’s Bureau directly following emancipation. Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized it. The integration of the dollar was the second part of his integration dream for America.
Look around at how inequity has manifested in our present day. The current spate of upheaval in communities across our nation underscores the enormous responsibility we hold collectively to help address financial inequity, which, connected to class, lies at the foundation of most social unrest.
My friends, we’re sitting in a moment in history right now, but history never feels historic when you’re sitting in it—it just feels like another day.
In that spirit, here’s the recording of the essential conversation captured in the groundbreaking Freedman’s Bank Forum that I was honored to participate in.
The Forum opened with a discussion between Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew and Derek T. Dingle, Senior Vice President & Chief Content Officer, Black Enterprise, on the future of financial inclusion, followed, by remarks from Roger Ferguson, President and CEO of TIAA. The first panel, moderated by Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Raskin, explored “Building Jobs and Opportunities.” Panelists included Curley M. Dossman, Jr., Chairman of the Board, 100 Black Men of America, Inc., John W. Rogers, Jr., Chairman, CEO, & Chief Investment Officer, Ariel Investments, and Raj Chetty, Professor of Economics, Stanford University.
I participated in the second panel, moderated by Amias Gerety, Department of Treasury’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions, entitled, “Financial Inclusion and Shared Prosperity”—sharing insight around how financial stress affects communities and individuals and effective ways to bridge the gap between Americans and financial institutions; underscoring that the collective way forward around social uplift must be building up communities, torn down and incapacitated by lack of equity, with financial empowerment.
In total, the dialogue examined possible federal, state, and local government solutions to economic inequality, with valuable input from the Honorable Kasim Reed, Mayor of Atlanta, and Kim Saunders, Founder, President and CEO, Eads Group; and, Board Member, National Bankers Association.
The Forum concluded with treasured words of inspiration from Ambassador Andrew Young, chair of the Andrew J. Young Foundation, civil rights icon, and Global Spokesperson for Operation HOPE. Ambassador Young encouraged collective action forward under the banner of “Silver Rights”—rights to financial literacy, access to capital, and equity of opportunity, for all.
About Financial Inclusion
Operation HOPE, Inc., powers the broadest financial inclusion network in the country. Through strategic partnerships with organizations like SunTrust Banks, Wells Fargo, and Coca-Cola, the nonprofit is making free enterprise accessible to all by equipping youth and adults with the financial training and tools to realize their aspirations and ensure their financial wellbeing. Through its core programs, Operation HOPE has provided financial dignity and economic empowerment to over 2.6 million individuals worldwide, and $2 billion in economic activity for the disenfranchised—turning check cashing customers into banking customers, renters into homeowners, small business dreamers into small business owners, and minimum wage workers into living wage consumers. Project 5117 is the organization’s multi-year four-pronged approach to combating economic inequality that aims to improve financial literacy, increase business role models and business internships for youth, and stabilize the American dream by boosting credit scores. The Atlanta Uplift 2020 initiative will escalate the organization’s services throughout the city to strengthen low- and middle-income families. For more information: www.OperationHOPE.org
Volunteer with HOPE Corps: http://www.operationhope.org/hopecorps
Learn more about membership levels: https://www.operationhope.org/becomeapartner