Citizens’ and Southern: The People’s Bank

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“The Citizens’ and Southern Banking Company,” Philadelphia Tribune, February 2, 1924. This article tells the story of R.R. Wright Jr.'s migration north to Philadelphia and the bank's founding in 1920. It also shows how much trust people had in Citizens’ and Southern Bank.

Experience the curated index of Charles Ealy's oral history interview.

In September of 1920, R.R. Wright Jr. and his father, R.R. Wright Senior opened the Citizens’ & Southern Banking Company at the corner of 19th and South Street in Philadelphia. The bank soon amassed $100,000 and 4,000 depositors, and in the decades that followed helped launch dozens of small businesses throughout the city's African-American neighborhoods.

Born on August 14, 1895 in Mariana, Florida, Charles Ealy was taken as a boy to live with his aunt in Jacksonville. There he attended the Cookman Institute (today's Bethune-Cookman College).

“After my graduation I was wondering what type of job I could get. One afternoon, I walked into a man's place of business that I had heard a great deal about as a businessman and banker and I asked him for a job. He looked at me. He said, ‘Well I will give you a job.’ So he hired me a cashier of his retail business and said I did a very fine job. He eventually promoted me to the management of one of his branches.” – Charles Ealy, 1985

Sometime in the early 1920s Major R.R. Wright Sr. visited Ealy and asked him to move to Philadelphia to run the day-to-day operations of his Citizens’ & Southern Bank. Ealy accepted his offer and in 1924 moved north.

“We appealed to the people of Philadelphia. The name of our bank was Citizens’ and Southern, which means the citizens of Philadelphia and the southerners who had migrated here. It was a general appeal to people, regardless of their race, color or creed.” – Charles Ealy, 1985

The year Ealy arrived in Philadelphia, Major Wright also helped found and became the first president of the National Black Bankers Association, a position that he held for seven years. Wright used both positions to encourage Blacks in Philadelphia, many of them southern newcomers, to support African-American businesses. The Wright family kept their bank small and thus financially stable to instill confidence in Black customers, many of whom mistrusted African-American businesses.

“I think I can truthfully say this: there has never been, and I cannot foresee there ever will be another institution that can pay off all its depositors on demand. That was the method we used, that institutions are still using today.” – Charles Ealy, 1985

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Application for buying shares at Citizens’ & Southern Bank, c. 1928. To raise capital for the support of Black businesses, the Citizens' & Southern in the 1920s provided investors an opprtunity to invest in the bank's Trust company.

Segregation and economic discrimination placed Black businesses at a severe disadvantage to their White counterparts. Ealy and the Wrights worked hard to instill confidence in their bank.

“Well, it was a challenge to get our depositors to understand because they had been living in another world. In the past, they dealt with institutions that charged them very high rates of interest on their loans. In the beginning some of them didn't even believe the interest they earned. Sometimes we had to send people home so they could carefully look at what we’ve given them and they could understand it.” – Charles Ealy, 1985

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“Brown & Stevens, The North's Leading Negro Bankers," c. 1922. In the early 1920s Andrew Stevens and E.C. Brown ran one of the largest Black banks in the North. Its sudden and unexpected 1925 collapse shook Black Philadelphians' faith in African-American enterprises.

When the Wrights opened Citizens’ & Southern, the largest and most prominent African-American financial institution in Philadelphia was the Brown & Stevens Bank, located at the corner of Broad and Lombard.

“I remember when Brown & Stevens became a hundred million dollar institution. The people of Philadelphia looked at that as something huge, and it was at the time. They had explicit confidence in the bank. However, I can say this: Brown & Stevens Bank didn't fail because of dishonesty... just a clean honest failure, which was in their favor. The people of Philadelphia looked at it in that way, and there wasn't any judgment.”
– Charles Ealy, 1985

The sudden and unexpected collapse of Brown & Stevens in 1925 dealt a severe blow to Black Philadelphians' confidence in Black businesses, especially after an audit revealed that Brown and Stevens had borrowed large sums of money from the bank-- $460,000 of the bank's $493,517.88 outstanding loans and discounts--to keep their other business ventures afloat.

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John W. Mosely, “Richard R. Wright Sr. Addresses Crowd at Mother Bethel Church,” c. 1940. To restore confidence in African American businesses after the fall of the Brown & Stevens Bank, Major Wright Sr. helped lead an ambitious public relations campaign, often working through Black churches.

To restore confidence in race enterprises, the Major Wright helped lead an amibitious public relations campaign and Ealy helped direct Citizens’ & Southern's fiscally conservative policies to insure the bank's stability.

The Great Depression devastated the American banking industry. More than 4,000 banks failed in 1933 alone.  To meet the crisis, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt closed all banks on March 6, 1933. After a national audit, Citizens’ & Southern was one of the first banks permitted to  reopen. Rather than retreating from the crisis, Citizens’ & Southern aggressively sought more depositors. In 1934 it became one of only eight Black-owned banks to qualify for membership in the newly created Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

“When President Roosevelt closed all the banks... and reexamined them, there were only 100 institutions that were allowed to reopen. We were one of those 100 and based on the tactical record I think we topped 99 because some of those institutions, which were allowed to reopen failed within the first year. I think I can honestly say this: there has never been, and I cannot foresee there ever will be, an institution that could pay off all its depositors, on demand. That was a method that we used, that institutions are still using today.” – Charles Ealy, 1985

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John W. Mosely, “Richard Robert Wright Sr. at the Citizens’ and Southern Banking Company” c. 1940 Major Wright remained president of Citizens’ & Southern until his death in 1947.

Ealy worked for Citizens' & Southern for 47 years, retiring in 1967 at age 72. He then formed the American Bond and Mortgage Company, and as one of his first acts created scholarships for African American students to attend University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Finance. Ealy continued to go to the mortgage company office almost until his death, at the age of 95, in 1990.

 In his 1985 interview, Ealy remembered with fondness the loyalty of Citizens' & Southern's depositors and their commitment to the success of an African American bank.

“Well, I'll tell you one thing: they were very loyal. I’ll give you an example of that. One I can never forget. Sometimes I tell people about it, it almost brings tears to my eyes. During the Depression there were runs on the banks nationwide. A man came to my office and said, ‘How are things going?’ I said, ‘very good.’ He said, ‘well, I'm going to put in a little more money.’ I told a man the other day, people have been very loyal to me and to the things, which I have been associated with. So the debt which I owe the public I will never be able to pay back even if I live a thousand years.” – Charles Ealy, 1985

Citizens’ and Southern: The People’s Bank