William Washington Browne wasn’t covered in your history class, a fact that reveals the “Miseducation of the Negro.” Browne was born into slavery in Habersham County, Georgia, in 1849. When he died in 1897, his funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Richmond’s Black community. Browne was a preacher, businessman and social reformer. Perhaps his greatest legacy, however, was successfully chartering the first Black owned bank. That happened in 1888 when the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers was created by an act of the Virginia General Assembly.
The True Reformers bank was chartered on March 2 of 1888 but the Capitol Savings Bank of Washington, D.C., was the first Black owned bank to actually open, on October 17, 1888. Still, Browne’s contribution to history is undeniable. His road to becoming a historical figure, however, makes him a true legend. Browne was given the name “Ben” at birth. At the age of 8 he was moved to a plantation near Memphis, then sold to a horse trader. At that time Brown adopted the given names William Washington. After Union troops occupied Memphis in 1862, Browne escaped bondage and immediately went on to serve in the Union Army. After being discharged in 1866 he attended school in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, before returning to the South in 1869 to teach school. It was during his time as a teacher in Alabama that he met Mary A. Graham, whom he subsequently married in 1873.
Browne was a fierce advocate for temperance. Browne originally sought the endorsement of a white temperance society in Alabama but they refused formal association with Blacks. Instead, they offered him a charter and separate name. Using his platform as a temperance advocate, Browne built his reputation in the region. In time he developed plans to transform his temperance society into an insurance organization with a bank. In Alabama, however, he was unable to obtain a state charter. Virginia held more promise and so in 1880 Browne landed in Richmond, where he would pastor and head the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, a fraternal organization that would become the largest and most successful Black business enterprise in the country between 1881 and 1910.
In 1885 the True Reformers established the first insurance plan by a Black fraternal society based on actuarial calculations of life expectancies. The insurance enterprise became profitable and allowed the organization to support other enterprises, including real estate investing. In 1888 the True Reformer received a bank charter, a first for a Black owned bank. The bank was so prosperous and well run that during the financial panic of 1893, it was the only bank in Richmond able to honor all checks. The Reformers also built the largest building in Richmond owned by Blacks, acquired a hotel, published a weekly newspaper and ran a general store, under Browne’s leadership.