African American Credit Unions
The SOHP is exploring a project that would recover and preserve the history of early credit unions in North Carolina, in particular those established by and primarily for African-Americans as alternative means of saving and borrowing money during the Jim Crow era, when their fair access to credit was limited. The Self-Help Credit Union in Durham raised this idea with SOHP, pointing out the value of these early credit unions in their communities and the fact that their history is fading as many of the founders and early members pass away. The first credit union in North Carolina was founded in 1916 in a rural community in Durham County, most likely for white farmers, while the first credit union established by black North Carolinians was founded two years later in Rowan County. Black citizens had set up another eight credit unions by 1920.
During the 1940s, the number of black credit unions rose to fifty-five, giving North Carolina nearly as many as all the other states combined. In Bertie County, for example, a dozen black men organized the St. Luke Credit Union in 1944, starting with just $500, but St. Luke had some 1,700 members and $5.3 million in assets by the mid-1990s. To date, SOHP has conducted six “pilot interviews” with subjects including a credit union co-founder, a former board member and small-business loan recipient, two former managers, and representatives from Self-Help. We are asking questions about who started the credit unions and whom did they serve, what obstacles they faced, and how they impacted communities economically, socially, and politically. We are working to build a list of prospective interview subjects from across the state. We plan to seek grants to support this project beyond the pilot phase.