Black Perspectives Reviews Black Banking and Women Financial Power Brokers

Historians in the News
tags: books

In Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal, Shennette Garrett-Scott offers a compelling narrative that centers on Black women in the largely male-dominated banking sector between the 1860s and 1930s. The author has provided a well-researched book that demonstrates a clear and accessible command of sources, which include diaries, newspapers, banking records, oral histories, personal papers, and organizational files. She joins the cutting-edge historiographical standard set by other scholars of Black women’s history during this period, asserting that one cannot tell these stories without highlighting the innovative role of Black women in economic life. Thus, she argues that within, or despite, the limitations of race, gender, and class, Black women forged effective economic strategies in their embrace of capitalism, which resulted in new institutions, reciprocal bonds, and community uplift. At the same time, these seemingly progressive dynamics could also be extremely problematic with both positive and negative outcomes. “As black women created, maintained, and used their own financial institutions and networks, they forged their own definitions of econ­­omic opportunity and citizenship” (4). She specifically asks where they fit, or positioned themselves rather, in the equation of gendered economic practices and points to the ever-present exploitation they face in our contemporary times.

Garrett-Scott perceptively reminds us from the beginning that during and directly after the Civil War, Black women’s short-term and long-term economic strategies were shaped by free labor and banking experiments introduced by military and government reformers. In this way, Reconstruc­­­tion was supposed to be an economic expression of democracy in as much as it was a political one. 

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