Month: February 2014

Victory Savings Bank, Columbia, Richland Co (Marker 40-180)

It is rare these days to hear too many kind words about banks and bankers, but the story of Victory Savings Bank reminds us of the potential good that these community institutions can do.  Founded in 1921, Victory Savings Bank was, for many years, the lone African American-owned bank in Columbia.  By 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, it was one of only a small handful of African American-owned banks still in existence in the entire nation.[1]  The bank still exists today, though with a new name, South Carolina Community Bank.

Prepping for the unveiling.

Prepping for the unveiling.

Victory Savings Bank, along with the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association, which was once located nearby, served as anchor firms that marked Washington Street as the heart of Columbia’s African American business district.  These businesses represented a paradox.  On the one hand they spoke to the growth of an African American middle-class and the collective economic power of the African American community.  On the other hand, their development and success was possible precisely because of both the de facto and de jure racial segregation that shaped all aspects of African American life in the early 20th century South.  Yet Victory Savings Bank itself would also become a vehicle for combating the very system of Jim Crow that had served as one impetus for its founding.

Perhaps at no time was the bank’s role in attacking Jim Crow and pursuing social justice more evident than in the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board, which included among its consolidated cases Briggs v. Elliot, which had originated in Clarendon County, South Carolina.  Many of the litigants in that case had faced economic reprisals for their participation.  Both Harry Briggs, Sr. and his wife lost their jobs.  Levi Pearson, who had brought the original suit in 1947 asking only for the provision of a school bus to carry African American children to their segregated schools, found that he was unable to obtain credit from “any white-owned store and bank in the county” and instead had to borrow from already cash-strapped black neighbors just get to get the fertilizer he needed for his crops.[2]  In a 1956 letter to Modjeska Montieth Simkins, who had just begun working at Victory Savings, where her Brother, H.D. Monteith, was president, the Reverend J.A. DeLaine, a central figure in organizing the Clarendon suit, asked for Simpkins’ cooperation in his attempts to “get people to deposit on Savings some of their money in the Victory Savings Bank so that the Bank will be in better shape to lend to the Petitioners and other hard pressed folks.”  Simkins and Victory Savings did assist in this effort to alleviate the suffering caused by what DeLaine referred to as the “Economic Squeeze.”  Simkins appealed directly to the heads of all the state organizations of the NAACP asking for deposits, which would earn 2% interest, and make possible loans to those experiencing economic hardship as a result of their assault on Jim Crow.  She also placed an advertisement in Jet magazine in 1955 that brought contributions from across the nation and even from abroad.[3]

Marker with Martha Cunningham Monteith.  Wife of H.D. Monteith and former board member of Victory Savings Bank.

Marker with Martha Cunningham Monteith. Wife of H.D. Monteith and former board member of Victory Savings Bank.

This ability to operate outside of the established white power structure was the benefit provided by an institution like Victory Savings Bank.  It gave a measure of empowerment to depositors who now had a black-owned banking option if they felt mistreated at white-owned institutions, or if they wanted to exert their collective economic force by removing their funds from those institutions, or even if they just wanted the ability to conduct their banking within their own neighborhood.  Additionally, though, as the Clarendon example highlights, it also offered a measure of insulation, though not complete by any measure, against the economic reprisals that were deployed against individuals who challenged the status quo of racial segregation.  Without institutions like Victory Savings Bank, and without individuals like Modjeska Monteith Simkins holding positions of power within those institutions, the fight for racial equality would have been even more fraught, even more hazardous, than it already was.  It is that history that we remember with the marker for Victory Savings Bank.

This marker also represents the culmination of a larger project, begun in 2007 and sponsored by the City of Columbia and Historic Columbia Foundation, to mark places significant to the city’s African American history.  The marker for Victory Savings Bank is the last in a series of 25 markers, which represents one of, if not the most, ambitious single project to mark historic sites in any city or town in South Carolina.

Marker Front Marker Back

[1] Abram Lincoln Harris, The Negro As Capitalist: A Study of Business and Banking Among American Negroes (New York: Haskell House Publishers, 1936), 48-9.

[2] Richard Kluger, Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America’s Struggle for Equality (New York: Vintage Books, 1975), 17-8.

[3] Barbara A. Woods, “Modjeska Simkins and the South Carolina Conference of the NAACP, 1939-1957,” in Women in the Civil Rights Movement: Trailblazers and Torchbearers, 1941-1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 112-3.