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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: The Black Bank Chronicles by Murali Balaji

Delaware State University assistant provost Charles D. Fletcher says the importance of black-owned banks over the course of American history has been overlooked. Now, he is telling their story.

Fletcher's "Black Gold: A Historical and Locational Appraisal of Commercial Banking in the United States" examines the contributions made by black-owned banks as early as 1770 through the segregation era to modern times.

The 230-page book was published by Afro.Facts Publishing, Inc. and costs $29.95. The book was released in conjunction with the start of Black History Month.

The banks provided loans and other forms of assistance to African-Americans when other financial institutions would not lend the money, Fletcher said. Even after the end of segregation, those banks became important in the revitalization of neighborhoods, he added.

Though many black-owned banks floundered or were no longer needed after mainstream institutions began lending to blacks, Fletcher cites several black-owned banks in the region that are still in operation. They include the Ideal Federal Savings Bank in Baltimore, which has been in operation since 1920, and the Berean Savings Association in Philadelphia, which opened in 1888 and is the oldest minority-owned lending institution in the United States.

He said several more recently opened banks, such as the United Bank of Philadelphia, which opened in 1992, also have proven successful.

Fletcher's book also touches on why Delaware has never opened a black-owned bank, despite having a considerable free black population before the Civil War and a strong black middle class in Wilmington during the first half of the 20th century. He noted there have been several unsuccessful attempts to open a black-owned bank.

"For there not to have been a black financial institution established here, that bothers me," Fletcher said. "This state has not given the same opportunities for black businesses."

But others noted that Delaware's reputation as a corporate state might have hurt its ability to open smaller minority financial institutions. Helen Foster Parson, economic development director for the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, said with larger banks providing the same services for minorities, opening a minority-owned bank has not been a dire need.

Parson said that while credit unions have provided assistance to minorities and low-income families, a black-owned bank in Delaware may not be far off.

"I think the capital is here in Delaware," she said, noting the need for minority lending institutions for Delaware's changing demographics. "Investors need to have a sense that they'll get a return on their investment."

Fletcher, meanwhile, believes black-owned financial institutions can thrive in Delaware if given the chance. He said the key is to place them in revitalized neighborhoods.

"You don't put a shiny new building in a depressed area and expect people to come," he said, adding that banks need to choose locations strategically.

Murali Balaji is a staff reporter for The News Journal where this article first appeared. Murali Balaji can be contacted via e-mail at:

Copyright 2004, The News Journal.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

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