Another Brief History of Black Women in Finance


A person with long black braids and a gray sweater holds a white mug and reads while smiling from a book. There's a wooden table with a plant next to them.
Photo by Alexandra Fuller via Unsplash.

Happy Black History Month!


Especially after the last year we’ve all had, it’s important to take time to celebrate those who came before us, those who are here now, and those who will lead future generations to come. Cue Kamala’s “we did it” meme.


But, it can be difficult to stay optimistic as Black women in finance when the industry has been so slow to progress in the way of racial and gender diversity and inclusivity. The National Society of Black Certified Public Accountants has made it widely known that less than 1% of CPAs in the United States are Black. On their site, they even include a short disclaimer that the number seems to oscillate among surveys, with some reporting that the percentage is less than 1%, while others posit that it's closer to a little less than 3%.


Whether the number is less than 1% or less than 3% is irrelevant; it’s still shockingly low.


Digging even further, there don’t even seem to be numbers available for the percentage of CPAs who are Black women.


With such a lack of inclusivity and access to this industry, it’s been an uphill battle to secure a career and grow within the field.


But guess what: Black women in accounting are here. And they always have been.


Maggie Lena Walker

A black and white photo of Maggie Lena Walker looking to the left side of the frame with a cross and pearls around her neck.
Maggie Lena Walker, born in 1864, was a Black businesswoman and teacher. "Maggie L Walker National Historic Site" by National Park Service is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Maggie Lena Walker was the first Black woman to charter a bank and serve as its president in the United States.


After working as a teacher and leaving the profession formally in 1886, she began giving her time to the Independent Order of St. Luke, a burial society turned fraternal order and life insurance company that devoted itself to the financial independence of the Black community.


In 1903, she chartered the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia, became the President of the bank, and included several Black women on the leadership board.


After the bank merged with two other Richmond banks to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, Walker served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors.


Walker dedicated her career to uplifting and empowering the Black community. In a speech, Walker stated her life’s mission clearly:


“Let us put our moneys together; let us use our moneys; let us put our money out at usury among ourselves, and reap the benefits ourselves.”


Lillian H. Payne

Lillian H. Payne isn’t as well-known a woman in finance as her confidant, Maggie Walker, but she was known at the time as Walker’s right-hand woman.


Payne first worked with Walker at the Woman’s Union, a cooperative society for Black women in the 1890s.


When Walker was approached about chartering St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, she asked Payne to join her in the endeavor, appointing her to the Board of Directors. Payne served on the Board of Directors at the bank from 1903 until she retired in the 1940s.


A black and white image of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, VA.
St. Luke Penny Savings Bank at its final location. Photo via NPS.gov, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site

For more than four decades, Payne led the Finance and Auditing Committees, underwrote loan applications, and several times a year, would travel to recruit new members and encourage existing members to become more active in the community.


By the 1920s, the impact of Payne’s work and the St. Luke Bank was felt heavily by the Black community in Richmond: more than 600 families had paid their home mortgages in full. Between Payne and Walker’s work, they were able to fulfill their goal of empowering and uplifting the Black members of their community to take part in their American Dream.


Viola Turner

A black and white photo of Viola Turner in pearls and glasses.
Viola Turner, born in 1900, would eventually become known as the financially-savvy superwoman of Black Wall Street. Photo via the Pauli Murray Project.

Born in Macon, Georgia and a graduate of the Morris Brown College in Atlanta, Viola Turner set out to start a career in business in the South.


In 1924, Turner moved to Durham, North Carolina, and began working at North Carolina Mutual’s headquarters on Parrish Street. That’s right, the very heart of Black Wall Street.


Officially, her title at the company was as Secretary to the company’s Treasurer, but after her investment advice and portfolio management won North Carolina Mutual over $1 million, she became known as one of the sharpest women investors in the United States.


In 1957, she became the Treasurer of North Carolina Mutual and a few years later, was appointed Vice President of the company, becoming the first woman VP. Later. Turner would also be elected to the Board of Directors, becoming the first Black woman on the Board.


Throughout her career, Turner fought for equal pay and against gender discrimination, refusing to accept the lower salary she was being offered in comparison to her male counterparts.


Suzanne Shank

A photo of Suzanne Shank in a gray blazer and black top underneath.
Suzanne Shank is the modern powerhouse of Wall Street. Photo via Siebert Williams Shank & Co., LLC

Suzanne Shank is the President and largest equity owner of Shank Williams Cisneros & Co., LLC and the CEO of Siebert Williams Shank & Co., LLC (SWS).


In 1996, she co-founded the firm Siebert Cisneros Shank & Co., LLC, and eventually grew the practice to become the first Minority/Woman-owned Business Enterprise to rank within the Top 10 of all municipal debt underwriters in the United States and the first Minority/Woman-owned Business Enterprise to lead a municipal underwriting over $1 billion in principal amount.


Shank has been recognized by U.S. Banker Magazine as one of the “Top 25 Women in Finance” and by Black Enterprise Magazine as one of the “50 Most Influential Black Women in Business”.


Shank is well-aware of the women who helped her get to where she is now and has these words of advice for others who are trying to make their own impact in the industry:


“The most important thing we [women in finance] can do right now is give a hand up and provide mentorship for other women.”


Conclusion

Getting into finance and growing your career as a Black woman is the result of hard work, dedication, and a whole lot of support.


How do we know? Because we can see it in the women who have come before us!


Although the numbers can be discouraging, they can’t be debilitating. History says that Black women in finance have always been around.


It’s up to those in the present to decide whether the legacy continues.


We think it will. How about you?




Resources

Garrett-Scott, Shennette. Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal. New York; Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 2019. Accessed February 11, 2021. doi:10.7312/garr18390.


#009: The Women of Black Wall Street, https://runitback.substack.com/p/009-the-women-of-black-wall-street


NPS.gov, https://www.nps.gov/mawa/the-st-luke-penny-savings-bank.htm


CUPblog.org, https://www.cupblog.org/2019/03/20/five-african-american-women-pioneers-in-u-s-finance/


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