In 1980, just weeks before my 10th birthday, my parents took me by the hands, across town, and into an Edwardian Baroque-styled building at the corner of 19th & K Streets. I was dressed in a tailored lavender suit, courtesy of the Ester Shop, lace gloves, and patent leather Mary Janes for the occasion. The slow walk down a long, narrow corridor with storied walls and marble floors grew from a long tradition — a sort of family ritual — that signaled my matriculation from seed to seedling. The thoughtless spending of Birthday and Christmas gifts, as well as the weekly allowance, was coming to an abrupt end. It was time to establish both a savings account and long-term (8-year) financial plan that would usher in a healthy appreciation for earning money and spending wisely. My brother’s account was already open and his bank book held several pages of stamps and signatures, so while I still would preferred to spend recklessly on Now & Later candy and Jolly Ranchers, sibling rivalry forbade I ignore the challenge of surpassing his entries.
Looking back on that day, I am firmly reminded of the importance my family lent to financial responsibility. Ear-wigging a conversation between elder women not long after, I heard an aunt reply to the announcement that I now had a bank book, “Some women may not have children or a formal education, but she can be defined by her integrity, her bank book, and her passport.” Understanding that those assembled had reared families on a living of sharecropping, doing ‘days-work,’ minding other people’s children, or taking in washing, the value of a dime — let alone a dollar — was Gospel. These women had purchased homes, paid for parochial and college educations for their children and grandchildren, and contributed widely to the communities around them through saving, limited spending, and group economics.
One of those ladies, Mrs. Netta Wimbush, 97, told me recently, that the goal in having children open accounts before becoming teens was to help them develop a healthy relationship with money before they became earners and assigned too much value in reckless spending. It’s a relationship Wimbush likens to a romance.
“When you believe in the power of someone or something, you allow it to run you. You feel compelled to do what it wants and the Black people have more money running from their pockets and through their fingers today than ever before,” Wimbush said. “The money controls them, they feel euphoric when they have it and spend it. They show off what they own from having it, but money is a selfish lover, who robs you of common sense. Kelly Miller used to say, “The negro buys what we wants and begs for what he needs.” In the end, it’s not what you own, it’s what owns you.”
Wimbush told me about The Fervent Five — Herman E. Perry, James A. Robinson, Thomas J. Ferguson, W.H. King, and Henry C. Dugas who opened Citizens Trust Bank in 1921. Their mission was to promote financial stability and business development, by stressing the principles of thrift and home ownership to as many Black people as possible. She pointed to Oseola McCarty, the Hattiesburg, Miss., washerwoman whose frugal living allowed her to save more than a quarter of a million dollars — money she willed as an endowment for African-American students to attend the University of Southern Mississippi. The difference between being poor and having a poverty mentality is the relationship people have with money.
“Five men using collective economics to create wealth for others, a washerwoman who had no husband or children and who could have been off buying expensive things and living fine, but instead squirreled away that money until it could be of benefit to generations of others through education,” Wimbush said. “We have to learn again to nest for others. That commercial says, ‘what’s in your wallet?’ The future of my people in my wallet as long as I don’t spend it on a good time. That’s the way I look at it.”
This Informer Financial Literacy supplement, “Nesting,” celebrates the life’s goals of Wimbush, the Fervent Five, and McCarty in introducing the benefits of Children’s Savings Accounts (CSA) to readers. Additionally, we have documented the history of collective economics opportunities, like Sou-Sous saving clubs, as well as current campaigns like the “Buy the Block” initiative (see online) which helps groups of neighbors, purchase property in communities targeted for gentrification. There are tips to changing your relationship with money into one that proves healthy and productive.