Although African Americans faced strong institutional barriers, they nonetheless sought to utilize the building and loan association as a tool of capital accumulation for the working class. In 1899, W. E. B. Du Bois, who was then utilizing the latest statistical and social scientific tools to create the most detailed statistical and analytical portrait of African American life, looked optimistically to building and loan associations to aid in the advance of African Americans within American society.

W.E.B. DuBois

The founding of at least thirteen such institutions was, according to Du Bois, “the most gratifying phenomenon” in the growth of African-American commerce and capital (Du Bois 13). The research and testimony of I. Maximilian Martin Jr. (whose father was active in the building and loan movement serving blacks in Philadelphia), confirms the popularity of these African American “community institutions” run as “part time affairs” from church basements and other locales in Philadelphia, enabling many migrants from the South to buy their first row house (Martin Jr., Oral History).

This progress, of course, took place in an atmosphere of hostility from many in the white financial establishment. As Maximilian Martin wrote in 1936, “our people were being insulted all over the city whenever they attempted to get reasonable housing” (Martin Sr., 2).

When we pay tribute to the cultural staying power of It’s a Wonderful Life, if we honor the ability of the many creative minds to create a narrative so faithful to the positive values in the American dream, we must also reckon with their concessions to popular prejudice. Until the civil rights movement began to gain new momentum in the late 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans were portrayed as the objects of light amusement (if not ridicule), entirely absent, or consigned to the deep background of a scene. Like Capra (and his lead character, George Bailey), Roosevelt was completely at home speaking of America’ s most recent immigrants as the quintessential representatives of a new chapter of the American dream.

What Do You Think?

In what ways did both the private economy and the public system of financial policies and regulations support racial discrimination?

Review the script of It’s a Wonderful Life in light of the new information provided in this section. Write a memo to film director Frank Capra telling him how you would change his script to take account of this history.  Or would you?

  Hard Times Return