Martin Luther King Jr.

The night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated – 50 years ago – he delivered his last speech, “I’ve Seen the Promised Land,” in Memphis Tennessee and encouraged the crowd of 2,500 people to strengthen Black institutions including Black banks.

During that same year of 1968, the predecessor of OneUnited Bank, Unity Bank and Trust Co., was founded in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Today, OneUnited has grown to become the largest Black-owned bank and first Black internet bank in the country. Tri-State Bank has also grown over the years as it continues to serve the greater Black community of Memphis. And Mechanic & Farmers of North Carolina, the oldest Black bank, is celebrating its 111th anniversary.  In honor of  King, and his legacy and visionary leadership, we reflect on his call for a “bank-in” movement as we are inspired by the activism of millennials and the #BankBlack movement.

Unity Bank was founded 50 years ago when there were 14,000 commercial banks in the U.S. of which only 20 were Black controlled. Established to give equal economic opportunity to the Black residents of Roxbury and Dorchester, Massachusetts, Unity Bank embarked on this journey with the slogan, “The Bank with a Purpose!” It provided free seminars on consumer education, investments, credit and how banking works. 

Unity Bank was conceived by John T. Hayden, a Black graduate of Harvard Business School and organized by the late Donald E. Sneed, chairman and president; Marvin E. Gilmore, vice president; and C. Bernard Fulp, assistant vice president and chief loan officer. Fulp, who previously worked at two large banks in Boston and saw first-hand the discriminatory policies of banks including redlining. Unity Bank was founded to change all of that.

Although progress has been slow, there continues to be hope and opportunity inspired by the #BankBlack and #BuyBlack movements and supported by the internet and advancements in technology. The Black community has begun to focus on  King’s economic message by recognizing the power of its $1.2 trillion in annual spending to build generational wealth. Black banks and credit unions are proud to be at the forefront of this burgeoning understanding of the power of “collective economics.” 

Nearly 50 years later, OneUnited Bank continues the legacy of Unity Bank, including its mission to be “The Bank with a Purpose.” OneUnited became the first Black interstate bank, expanding beyond Boston by acquiring banks in Miami and Los Angeles.  The bank loaned more than $2 billion to communities that are over 70 percent or more minority and low- to-moderate income.

The bank launched an internet bank in 2005 with mobile banking and 25,000 surcharge free ATMs. OneUnited Bank is “unapologetically Black.” The bank continues to focus on financial literacy and, importantly, advocates for economic and social justice including supporting #BlackLivesMatter.

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