What do these  scenes and testimonies leave out?

In a society that conceived of its members in very broad racial categories (“White”, “Black”[or Negro]) and understood itself to be a “White” society, such sources are going to be easier to find.

In this society, until the twentieth middle twentieth century, the society was  racially segregated (either by law or by tradition), and the experiences of those who were being segregated against, are not as fully represented in the record of words, deeds and images.

So, knowing this we must go back and look a little harder a dig a little deeper and get at least a bit more of the story.

Image of bank building

Freedman’s Savings Bank, Washington, D.C.

We can establish that African-Americans, for example, organized themselves financially and in other ways within racial segregation to pursue and protect their interests as citizens and community members within the United States. We can know this by consulting a book published in 1899, The Negro in Business, by the great historian W.E.B DuBois, who as a black man and a scholar of the first rank, sought to correct a record that left “his people” out.

On page 13, he shares the results of his research:

 “… It is a difficult thing for those of us unused to notion of property to learn to save. Moreover, the national crime perpetrated in the mismanagement of the Freedman’s Bank had wide-spread influence in discouraging the saving habit. As it is to-day, there is not among all ‘these millions any far-reaching movement to encourage or facilitate saving except  such local efforts as  have arisen among themselves. While their extravagance and carelessness in the expenditure of  their incomes  is characteristic of the race, and will be for some time, yet  there  is some considerable saving even now,, and much money is invested. Land and houses are naturally favorite investments; and there are a number of red estate agents. It is difficult. to separate capital from accumulated  wealth in the case of many who live on the income from rents or buy and sell real estate for s profit. Thirty-six such capitalists have been reported with about $750,000 invested. There are four banks in Washington D.C., Richmond, Virginia, and Birmingham, Alabama, and several large insurance companies which insure against sickness and injury, and collect weekly premiums. There are a number of brokers and money-lenders springing up here and there, especially in cities like Washington where there is a large salaried class. The most gratifying phenomenon is the spread of building and loan associations, of which there are thirteen reported….

There are probably several more of these associations not reported. The crying need of the future is more agencies to encourage saving among Negroes. Penny savings banks with branches in the country district, building and loan associations and the like would form a promising field for philanthropic effort. The Negroes, themselves, have as yet too few persons trained in handling and investing money. They would, however, co-operate with others, and such movements well-started would spread.”

Isadore M. Martin

There now exist some oral histories which give us a very vivid idea of the barriers faced by African-Americans when it came to financing mortgages.  Consider these comments from Isadore M. Martin (“Goin’ North: Tales of the Great Migration: Lois B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky):

Listen to the interview on the Goin’ North website

Here is an excerpt of Martin M. Isadore’s oral history about African American Savings and Loans:

HARDY: Now, were there white banks in the city that would fund mortgages?

MARTIN: There were a few, but they [pause] had very definite lending bias. Some of them frankly said, We will not lend on colored properties. There are some who would put in the mortgage a clause: that this property  should not be occupied or sold to a member other than those of the Caucasian race. Very often in those days, your financing –[unintelligible]– was for three or five years, you’d pay interest only, and then you would have to renew it. And I remember 00:31:00 on many occasions my father said, Now look, mail your monthly payment in. Don’t take it down to the bank or the insurance company. If they see you, they will call the mortgage. As some who didn’t have enough sense to follow his instructions found out. Normally, as long as the money is paid, you go along. But when you find somebody goes in, huh-uh. And as I say, I have seen, and we have had transactions, where there was a clause in the mortgage, not in the deed. Incidentally, restrictive covenants were never tested by law in Pennsylvania, but they universally existed. All new construction

HARDY: I think Baltimore pioneered that. I just read something.


MARTIN: Well, Louisville, and I think Baltimore. But uniformly, all new construction had a clause in there. They had: this property shall not be occupied, sold, or rented by any member of a  race  other than Caucasian–except as a servant. And unfortunately, in the early days of FHA, which was founded during the Roosevelt Administration, they aided and abetted…,they encouraged the insertion of these clauses. Were talking about the 1930s, now. Early 1930s, before World War Two, and FHA didn’t get itself straightened out until probably maybe ten years after World War Two. Because it helped perpetuate patterns of discrimination and segregation in residential living.


You can listen to this part of the transcript here:


 [ See the segment titled, “Discrimination in Philadelphia Building and Housing]’

Isadore Martin. Courtesy Philadelphia Daily News