Happy Black History Month! This is the 5th blog of a series of blogs called “Black History Month Heroes You Should Know”. Each blog focuses on the life and career of a Black American whose life has shaped American history.
The focus of today’s blog is Eliza Allen, a leader in finance who created several secret societies of enslaved women that provided mutual aid. She is also the only woman to appear on the charter of the first Black-owned bank in the United States, True Reformers Savings Bank.
A Leader In Secret Societies
According to the Columbia University Press Blog, Eliza Allen was born into slavery around 1840 in Westmoreland County, Virginia. Eventually, Allen gained her freedom and worked as a laundress in Petersburg, Virginia. During this time, she ran several secret societies that allowed enslaved women to meet and pool resources for the needs of their families and communities. According to “Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal (Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism)” written by Shennette Garrett-Scott, the women would meet on Sunday afternoons because it was the easiest time to slip away unnoticed from their duties.
There were at least three secret societies Eliza Allen created and led. Two of them were called the “Consolation Sisters” and the “Sisters of Usefulness”. Vox says the latter was said to have more than 30 members at one point. Societies like these were so popular that some cities like Baltimore passed laws banning them. Columbia University Press Blog says Allen’s societies had members who were also involved with other societies, like the Eastern Star, Tents of the Gidding and Jolliffe Union, and the Independent Order of St. Luke.
In 1880, a formally enslaved man named Rev. William W. Browne brought the business fraternity True Reformers to Richmond. The fraternity is formally known as The Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers. Allen joined and organized one of the three local branches of the larger fraternity known as a fountain. Her previous work running secret societies became incredibly beneficial running this fountain for True Reformers.
Her leadership with the fraternity led her to also be the only woman listed on the charter of the bank Rev. William W. Browne bought in 1888. They called it True Reformers Savings Bank. This became the first Black-owned bank in the United States in 1889. BlackPast says at the bank’s peak, they handled what is equivalent to $7.5 million today. The bank also provided other services for the community as well including a retirement home and an educational youth program (Encyclopedia Virginia).
The impact of Allen’s work providing access to mutual aid for enslaved people and running the business fraternity is clearly seen today. Many people find safety and security with mutual aid programs, organizations, and websites like GoFundMe.
Learn more about Eliza Allen from the sources I used: Vox, Encyclopedia Virginia, BlackPast, Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal (Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism) by Shennette Garrett-Scott, and Columbia University Press Blog