Standing on the corner of South Poindexter and East Fearing streets and nestled within Elizabeth City’s historic district is a decorative red brick building with a little-known history.
On Aug. 14, 1920, this structure, opened for business as the Albemarle Bank, the first African-American-owned bank in northeastern North Carolina.
Building off a long tradition of mutual aid within African-American communities, African-American-owned banks provided their clientele with savings and loans opportunities along with respectful customer service. These goods and services were especially important during the era when black people in the United States endured segregation and other forms of legal discrimination. By 1924, North Carolina was home to ten African-American-owned banks.
The bank’s organization began in 1919 with the coming together of a group of African-American leaders from across the region. Dr. Ernest L. Hoffler, an Elizabeth City physician, was elected president, and Peter W. Moore, president of the State Colored Normal School (today Elizabeth City State University), served as one of four vice-presidents. Among the bank’s 25-member board of directors was Mary E. Sills of Ahoskie, the first woman to serve on the board of directors of a bank in the entire state of North Carolina.
The group acquired the property — the old Citizen’s Bank building — and then raised over $25,000 in capital to begin the enterprise.
The bank’s opening ceremony took place at Mt. Lebanon A.M.E. Zion Church on Culpepper Street. The Honorable William Henry Harrison of Chicago, described in contemporary newspaper accounts as “the only negro superior court judge in America,” delivered the keynote address. A crowd, estimated to be 5,000 in size, was also treated to music performed by a 47-piece brass band from Norfolk, Virginia. All depositors received a souvenir to commemorate the event.
The Albemarle Bank served its clientele for five years before its closure in 1925. It offered a popular Christmas Club savings program and customer appreciation days that celebrated different groups of depositors like farmers, women, children, churches, clubs, businesses and professionals.
Unfortunately, the bank was forced to close its doors due to slow debt collection and financial irregularities. This disappointing end indicated the fragility of all banking institutions prior to the formation of the Federal Depositors Insurance Corporation in 1933.
The former bank building has since housed several other businesses, including a clothing store, a cupcake shop, and, now, a project management company.
Melissa Stuckey is assistant professor of history at Elizabeth City State University and a board member of the Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle.