In honor of Black History Month
Let’s celebrate Black History Month and the incredible impacts Black people have had on access to financial empowerment and freedom.
The visible history of investing is largely white — and largely male. In the stock market’s 200-year-old history, opportunities for people of color have been relatively few and far between. We’re honoring #BlackHistoryMonth by celebrating the often forgotten folks, featuring a weekly story of a Black person who (sometimes quietly) broke investing or banking barriers and helped create a path for those who came after them.
Maggie Lena Walker
To start, we’re learning about Maggie Lena Walker, who was the first woman (of any race) to start a bank. Maggie’s mother, Elizabeth Draper, was a former slave who worked as a cook in Richmond, VA, where Maggie was born. After losing her stepfather at a young age, her family was thrust into poverty and she and her mother worked tirelessly to rebuild stability for their family while navigating life as a first-generation-free Black woman. When her mother began a laundry business, Maggie’s job was to return the clean laundry to white customers — this is where she began to see and understand the glaring economic and social disparities between the races. An awareness that would eventually guide her historic work.
There is much to admire about Maggie’s life — she went through the newly founded public school system, worked as a teacher, and was deeply involved in Black fraternal organizations that supported the social and financial advancement of the Black community. She believed deeply that the future success and order of society depended on investing in youth, via education and community service.
In 1901, Maggie delivered her now-famous speech in which she shared her vision for a community-changing conglomerate: a bank chartered and operated by Black members, a newspaper run and issued by the same group, and a department store run by Black employees that catered to the needs of the Black community at more affordable pricing than white retailers. Within five years, that vision for a consolidation of money, communication, and industry was a reality in the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank, the St. Luke Herald, and the Saint Luke Emporium.
The bank — Maggie’s legacy — is credited with contributing to the longevity and stability of Richmond’s Black middle class, and facilitating the increase of Black home ownership in the city. Even during the Great Depression, while other banks failed, Maggie kept the Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank alive by merging it with two other banks to create the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company in 1930. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the bank continued to exist and was the oldest bank in the United States that has been continuously run by Black Americans.
Dr. Clifton Wharton Jr.
Next, we’re spotlighting the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company– Dr. Clifton Wharton Jr.
Born in 1926 in Boston, his father, Clifton Wharton Sr., was the first African American to be named Career Ambassador of the United States Foreign Service (The History Makers). By the time he was 16, Dr. Wharton Jr. entered Harvard University, where he would later get a bachelor’s degree in history. His formal education continued with a Master’s degree from the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University, and later a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago– with 61 honorary doctorates along the way. Dr. Wharton Jr.’s genius in academia later earned him the Education Distinguished Service Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Council (Black Entrepreneur Profile).
His respect and expertise in the world of academia led him to become the President of Michigan State University from 1970-1978.
In 1978, Clifton Wharton Jr. became the chancellor of the State University of New York System — a significant undertaking making a $2.5 billion budget and 70,000 employees. In 1987 he moved from higher education to become the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company. The company was TIAA-CREF (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund now known as TIAA), a multi-billion dollar corporation that continues to be the leading provider of financial services in the academic, research, medical, cultural, and governmental industries. At the time, TIAA-CREF managed the world’s largest pension funds, holding assets of $260 billion (Black History).
Most recently in 1993, Dr. Wharton Jr. was appointed by President Clinton as the Deputy Secretary of the US Department of State (Black Entrepreneur Profile).
Dr. Wharton, Jr. has successfully served as a university president, corporate executive and even as a former United States Deputy Secretary of State. Now he serves as a legendary icon for countless Americans, having helped pave the way for African Americans in the academic, governmental, financial, and corporate worlds.
References include Black Entrepreneur Profile, Black History, and the History Makers
Next up, we’re sharing the story of Lauren Simmons — who at age 22 became the youngest trader on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) floor, and the second-ever Black woman to work as a trader there.
Lauren Simmons was born on August 11, 1994 and raised by her mother in Marietta, Georgia. Simmons earned her bachelor’s degree in science genetics from Kennesaw State University in 2016. According to her LinkedIn, Simmons started working at Saks Inc even before she graduated, and she continued to work there after graduation as an Associate Business Analyst and Sales Manager, supervising a team of employees and selling over $15,000 daily.
In the move that catapulted her onto Wall Street and ultimately into the public eye, Lauren got a job with Rosenblatt Securities in 2017. As an NYSE equity trader, Simmons managed customer order flow valued over $150 million dollars daily. She also executed across various financial sectors on behalf of buy-side and sell-side institutions.
In her two years as a history-making equity trader, Lauren’s career interest in finance continued to evolve into a personal passion. As news stories and public interest in Lauren’s story took off, she saw an opportunity to be an advocate for women’s financial wellness. Lauren says that job offers from major organizations began to roll in as her story grew, but she instead chose to maintain her own independent voice and identity. She now works as a speaker, producer, podcast host, and Women’s finance expert, seeking to empower the next generation with their finances.
“Women are conditioned to look at our flaws…for me people would say ‘but you’re a woman, you’re from the South, you’re African American,’ — I am all those things, but those are not reasons why I can’t do something, they are reasons I can.” - Lauren Simmons
Black Wall Street
While this is the final addition for #BlackHistoryMonth, we hope you’ll join us year-round in honoring and advocating for people of color and their financial empowerment. Today’s story is directly connected to a very painful chapter of racist history, but one that must be told to understand the lingering impacts of wealth disparity, and just how significant the incredible accomplishments of Black Americans in the financial markets have been. We’re sharing the story of Black Wall Street, also known as Greenwood, Oklahoma, or the site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Founded in 1906, Greenwood began with the purchase of 40+ acres of land on the North end of Tulsa by O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black man from Arkansas who wanted to provide opportunity for Black families migrating “from the harsh oppression” of other states. By selling land to Black Americans, the business and residential district developed naturally and intentionally - becoming a thriving community.
By 1921, the Greenwood community of Tulsa, Oklahoma was one of the most prosperous Black communities in America. Thousands of Black Americans lived in the thriving community made up of banks, hotels, cafes, and more. Many of the modern homes in the area boasted luxuries for the time like indoor plumbing, while the families in Greenwood enjoyed the benefits of a strong school system. That education further supported their advancement in society, bringing more money back into the community, perpetuating the cycle of affluence that Greenwood had spurred.
The average income of Black families in the area far exceeded minimum wage. The combination of segregation and the many resources built directly in Greenwood meant that money stayed in the community. Greenwood is known as Black Wall Street because it did for their community what Wall Street had done for white Americans — gave them the chance to tie their money to their economy, grow businesses that mattered to them, and create vast wealth as entrepreneurs.
The tragic reality is that the significant wealth and success of so many Black Americans contributed to the devastating, ruthless destruction of the Greenwood district that was to follow. The affluence was seen as a threat to social order, and resentment over ownership of property, land, and businesses fueled the anger of white supremacists who sought to return power in Oklahoma to the hands of the few, elite, mainly white families.
This tension boiled over into the Tulsa Race Massacre, when white supremacists attacked the Greenwood community, killing up to 300 residents and burning over 1,000 homes, bringing an end to the thriving community built around Black Wall Street.
We end Black History Month by sharing this story as a call to all of us to think about what it truly means to create an ownership economy — financial access, equity for all, and the chance to thrive together. Nothing can truly amend this tragedy, but we can all choose to do our part to create a better world today.