February 18, 2021

Sites of the Green Book: Carver Federal Savings Bank

Between 1936 and 1967, the Negro Motorist Green Book was essential for the survival of thousands of Black Americans in an era of segregation cemented into the American legal system through Jim Crow laws, sundown towns where Black Americans were under threat of violence after sunset, and a sharp increase in lynchings and other forms of hate crimes. For the last year we’ve been working with Candacy Taylor, one of our African American Cultural Heritage Fund fellows, to further explore sites that were included in the Green Book.

There were three banks listed in the Green Book, and Carver Federal Savings Bank is the only one still operating today. Featured in the 1963-1964 and 1966-1967 editions, it was a critical resource for those who traveled to and lived in Harlem, especially given the banking challenges that faced African Americans.

Exterior of a modern building in New York City with a sign that says Carver Federal Bank.

photo by: Candacy Taylor

Founded in 1948, Carver Federal Savings Bank was started in reaction to unfair and racist banking practices against the Black community. Today it is the oldest continually Black-operated bank in the United States.

Black citizens have had a troubled history with the banking system in America. They often had to seek alternative methods to simply cash a check. Since there were no Black-owned banks in New Orleans, Black men could not easily find a place to cash their checks. So on Friday nights, many of them lined up outside Dooky Chase’s Restaurant (a Green Book site) to cash their checks and grab a beer and a po’ boy.

Cashing a check was difficult enough, but getting a loan was nearly impossible. The first bank to loan money to Black Americans with limited collateral was the People’s Finance Corporation, which was created in St. Louis in 1923. During the Jim Crow era, roughly 3 percent of Black men received bank credit from white-owned banks, and they were often charged higher interest rates than white customers. These banks also often required Black Southerners to get a white man to cosign for a loan. (Women of any race were denied credit without a male cosigner until well into the 1970s.)

Most Black men were also shut out of the GI Bill which gave World War II veterans lower-interest mortgages. This entitlement program pulled predominately white Americans out of poverty and got them into homes they couldn’t otherwise afford. These homes became a long-term investment that generated wealth for generations to come. Today, many of the homes that were bought with the help of the GI Bill are worth ten times their purchase price and have provided financial security, retirement, and college tuition for three generations of the same family. Black GIs being denied access to home ownership is a significant reason why the average white American family currently has nearly ten times the net worth of the average Black American family.

It wasn’t just the GI Bill that affected home ownership; even Black families who had money to put down on a house were still denied by the banks due to the system of redlining. If just one Black person lived in a neighborhood, the Federal Housing Association marked that community red and labeled it “D,” indicating that it was “high risk” so banks would not supply mortgages to those areas. Black real estate agents at the time said that redlining was their single biggest problem. Earl Hutchinson, author of A Colored Man’s Journey Through 20th Century Segregated America wrote, “All the major banks such as the Bank of America, Chase Manhattan, American Savings, Union Bank, and many others across the U.S. engaged in the practice.”

“To visit the streets of Harlem and Morningside Heights is to encounter the tangible results of your visionary work, whether it is a childcare center, housing for the elderly and the mentally ill, a condominium high-rise, or a business started with a Carver loan.”

Columbia University on Carver Federal co-founder M. Moran Weston II, 1998

To address banking inequities in New York, Carver Federal Savings Bank set out to pave a path toward home ownership for Black Americans. Named after the Black scientist, George Washington Carver, the bank was founded in 1948 by 14 African and Caribbean American local citizens.

One of those founding members was Mr. Milton Moran Weston II. He was born in Tarboro, North Carolina, and graduated from North Carolina College in Durham in 1929. Church, education, and children were important to Weston. In 1957, Weston was the Rector of St. Phillips Church in New York City with a congregation of 3,600 members. He studied banking at Columbia University in the mid-to-late 1940s and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. In his 2002 obituary in the New York Times the importance of his work is highlighted in a 1998 citation from Columbia University which says “'To visit the streets of Harlem and Morningside Heights is to encounter the tangible results of your visionary work, whether it is a childcare center, housing for the elderly and the mentally ill, a condominium high-rise, or a business started with a Carver loan.”

Another co-founder, Joseph E. Davis, served as the first director of the bank. He graduated from North Carolina College in Durham, North Carolina, and then attended New York University. A licensed real estate broker for 26 years, Davis specialized in appraising properties for insurance companies and banks.

In 1967, Davis was re-appointed by Governor Rockefeller to serve as a member of the New York State Housing Finance Agency, which encouraged private capital to provide low-interest loans for low-income families. Also in 1967, under Davis’ direction, Carver Federal signed an agreement with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to expand its home ownership program.

Ultimately, Davis was a critical force and his efforts enriched and improved the Harlem community. Unfortunately, his life was cut short after getting in a serious car accident that he never fully recovered from. He died three years later in 1968 in his home at the age of 59.

But Carver Federal Savings Bank’s legacy lives on. Today, it is the oldest continually Black-operated bank in the United States. It has provided capital for Black-owned businesses and made a commitment to reinvest funds back into the community. By 1961, its assets exceeded $14 million. That same year, the headquarters underwent an extensive renovation and a new branch opened up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn.

In 2021, Carver Federal is led by President and CEO Michael T. Pugh, and under his leadership, Carver lends funding to nonprofits, churches, and consumers; and is one of the largest Black-owned banks in the United States with nine branches and ATM Centers. By investing over 83 percent of its deposits back into the community, Carver earned its designation as a Community Development Financial institution by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Today the original Carver Federal Bank building stands as a testament to how Black Americans fought against racial prejudice, using all tools necessary to circumvent unfair and inequitable practices in their daily lives.

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Candacy Taylor is an award-winning author, photographer and cultural documentarian working on a multidisciplinary project based on the Green Book. She is the author of the bestselling book, Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America (Abrams Books). Taylor is also the curator and content specialist for the exhibition, The Negro Motorist Green Book which is being toured by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service from 2020 to 2024. Taylor was a fellow at the Hutchins Center at Harvard University under the direction of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and her work has been featured in over 100 media outlets.

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