Shennette Garrett-Scott

Banking on Freedom: Black Women in US Finance Before the New Deal

Columbia University Press, 2019.

288 pages


Reviewed by Marquis Taylor

Shennette Garrett-Scott’s Banking on Freedom: Black Women in US Finance Before the New Deal is among the latest works interrogating the history and legacy of capitalism in the United States. She examines Black women’s complicated relationship with capitalism after Reconstruction until the New Deal. Garrett-Scott follows in the historiographical tradition of WEB Du Bois in Black Reconstruction and Eric Williams in Capitalism and Slavery to demonstrate that race and slavery are inextricably linked to the development of capitalism. However, she departs from earlier historians by considering gender as an analytical category to illuminate how “gender shapes and is shaped by economic practices.”

Garrett-Scott demonstrates how race and gender during the Jim Crow era informed Black women’s exclusion from formal savings and credit institutions during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In response, Black women created formal and informal banking and savings institutions to establish their own economic opportunities and citizenship. Garrett-Scott’s primary argument in Banking on Freedom is that “Black women used finance to carve out possibilities in society and the economy.” To substantiate her argument, Garrett-Scott provides a case study of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Virginia, opened by the Independent Order of St. Luke (ISOL) in 1903 under the leadership of Maggie L. Walker, to illustrate Black women’s participation in US capitalism.

Garrett-Scott opens Chapter 1, “I Am Yet Waitin’: African American Women and Free Labor Banking Experiments in the Emancipation-Era South,” by historicizing Black women’s relationship with the Freedmen’s Bank following the end of the Civil War. Under the leadership of Maggie Lena Walker, the ISOL opened the St. Luke Bank in Richmond in 1903. In Chapter 3, “‘Let Us Have a Bank’: St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, Economic Activism, and State Regulation, 1903 to World War I,” Garrett-Scott examines Walker’s vision which employed “gendered economic practices” to grant Black women opportunities to access credit. State regulators intended to restrict Black women’s access to credit because of their perceived intrusion of male authority, prompting Walker to challenge this ideology by demonstrating Black women’s long history of financial leadership within their families, communities, and the ISOL. Garrett-Scott demonstrates in Chapter 4, “Rituals of Risk and Respectability: Gendered Economic Practices, Credit, and Debt to World War I,” that the ISOL’s bureaucratic structure was crucial in the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank’s reevaluation of Black women’s creditworthiness. For example, on-time due payments and active membership within the lodge were new determinants to assess someone’s creditworthiness.

In the final chapter of Banking on Freedom, Garrett-Scott explores the changing aspects of the ISOL and St. Luke Penny Savings Bank’s membership and structures following the First World War. She identifies the Great Migration and the New Negro Movement as two crucial historical developments undergirding the changes in the ISOL and the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. The Great Migration brought African Americans to urban centers throughout the south and in the northeast and midwest, thus bringing more members into the inner workings of both institutions. By the mid-1920s, the ISOL membership reached 85,000 in twenty-two states. The bank’s assets were estimated at nearly half a million dollars, and the assets of the ISOL were valued at $8.6 million dollars. She explores the economic component of the New Negro Movement by centering Black women’s contribution and participation. Black women pursued roles in the financial industry like clerks, bookkeepers, cashiers, and office managers due to the increased number of women seeking higher education. Also, during this moment, “widening generational and ideological [divides]” erupted between the ISOL old guard leaders and the younger women of the New Negro Movement.

Through Garrett-Scott’s examination of the St. Luke Bank operated by the ISOL, Banking on Freedom offers a profound contribution to histories on Black women’s political organizing and Black women’s labor. During the mid-1910s to 1930s, the reach of the ISOL was extending outside the south and into northeastern and midwestern cities as a result of the Great Migration. In a place like Harlem, the ISOL grew so powerful that it purchased and managed a real estate property development, which caused opposition with the ISOL’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. Garrett-Scott explains that scholars often fail to consider the activities and work of Black financial institutions. As the ISOL expanded geographically and in membership, so did its organizational capacity, which coincided with the New Negro Movement. Also, during the 1920s, the ISOL began hiring Organizing Deputies (OD), a highly sought-after position that paid well and was tasked with recruiting more members for the ISOL. Garrett-Scott argues, especially for “New Negro Women,” working as an OD allowed them to escape the drudgery of domestic, agricultural, and industrial forms of labor.

A novel contribution of Banking on Freedom is Garrett-Scott’s detailed attention to the St. Luke Bank’s racial and gendered economic practices. She argues that Black women created viable options to counter industry standardizations to assess creditworthiness and risk; these standards disproportionately labeled Black women as high risks. Lenders from St. Luke Bank relied on the bureaucratic structure of their fraternal order, the ISOL, as a strategy to assess someone’s creditworthiness. Garrett-Scott provides an example with S.A. Bright, a member of the ISOL, who mentioned in her application for a loan that the Bank should contact her local council to ensure that she was up-to-date on paying her dues and that she attended meetings regularly. Garrett-Scott declares the strategies employed by St. Luke Bank “diminished but could not completely erase social and class tension.” However, she underscores the necessity for Black banks to reevaluate notions of creditworthiness and extend credit options to Black women who held important economic roles in their families and communities.

Banking on Freedom recovers the centrality of Black women to the history of capitalism in the United States. Garrett-Scott’s work lies at the intersection of US capitalism, race, and gender. As Black women experimented with strategies to ameliorate their exclusion from financial and saving institutions, several overlapping forces arduously worked to continue their exclusion until today. Banking on Freedom presents the field of African American history the opportunity to study capitalism in the United States through Black women. Examining Black women’s history with capitalism in conjunction with a transnational method or a different case study example may provide further nuance to our understanding of the intersections of both studies in US capitalism and Black women’s history.