Launched in 1968 as Unity Bank & Trust Company in response to calls for black economic empowerment, OneUnited Bank’s mission remains being Black America’s first choice for banking. Here’s how OneUnited is working to achieve that goal.
After the U.S. passed what he considered weak voting and civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. began what he called a “new phase of the civil rights struggle.” In speeches and television interviews between 1965 and 1968, King emphasized the stated commitment to economic equity for African Americans he made in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech.
During the same period, King ramped up his refocused movement and, in 1966, Harvard Business School student John T. Hayden conceived the idea for a Black-owned Boston bank. That year, he, the late Donald Sneed and 88 other Boston community leaders formed the Unity Bank Association.
It would lay plans for a bank providing equitable economic access to lending and banking services to Boston’s Black residents.
Hayden got drafted into the Vietnam War shortly after graduation. So, real estate investor Sneed, Marvin E. Gilmore and C. Bernard Fulp, an experienced banker, opened Unity Bank & Trust Company as its first officers in Roxbury, Massachusetts, in June 1968.
Determined to honor King, assassinated two months earlier, Unity focused on economic activism in the Black community. Its slogan was and remains, “The Bank with a Purpose.”
But its officers committed to a multiracial endeavor, encouraging whites nationwide to open bank accounts by mail to support the institution, becoming the first Black bank with a national presence. It also sought and got commercial accounts from the City of Boston.
Fast forward to 1995: Husband and wife banking duo, Kevin Cohee and Teri Williams, bought what was by then a Unity Bank successor, the struggling Boston Bank of Commerce. Today, as OneUnited Bank, it comprises three brick-and-mortar branches and, they say, the most expansive online presence of any Black business in America.
But what makes the bank unique is that—from branding to banking services—it has developed a bold commitment to identifying and operating as an activist bank, what Williams calls, “a bank for Black America.”
Cohee, CEO and chair, and Williams, president and COO, knew early in life that they wanted finance careers. Around the same time in 1966, when Hayden was developing the Unity Bank concept at Harvard, Cohee remembers his uncles, who were civil rights activists in his native Kansas City, taking the then 4-year-old to Black Panther meetings.
A remark made by one of his uncles’ friends during one meeting would guide his life. “He told me,” Cohee remembers, “we have enough brothers protesting in these streets; we need some young brothers like you to own institutions like banks.” Cohee says of the experience, “They literally set this vision in my head to own a bank, and I spent my life playing that vision out.”
During that period, Williams lived in the Black community in Indiantown, Florida, where her family has spent four generations. She often followed her entrepreneur great-grandmother, who owned several businesses around town, watching her run them.
“She was my role model; I felt the power of her presence and, to this day, she’s a reflection of who I am,” she says of those formative years.
Williams earned her undergraduate degree with distinction in economics from Brown University. She spent two years at Bank of America post-college, and then got her MBA at Harvard, graduating in the top 10% of her class.
The 30-year financial services veteran worked at American Express under the mentorship of Ken Chenault, who later became its first Black CEO. She became one of Amex’s youngest vice presidents, overseeing products like its Gold Card.
But Williams wanted more than to help white-owned banks be more profitable. Although she wasn’t disenchanted with corporate America, she says, “I wanted to help Black people grow their wealth.” Partnering with Cohee helped her achieve that goal.
Cohee, who was a four-year letterman in football for the University of Wisconsin, always was entrepreneurial. After earning his B.A., he recalls, “I was involved in the acquisition of a couple of radio and television stations, did some consulting work for the state of Wisconsin and represented some professional athletes I played football with during college.”
While he asserts that he made hundreds of thousands of dollars in those endeavors, he says, “I thought if I went back to school, I could do even better.” He earned an MBA from the University of Wisconsin and a J.D. from Harvard Law School.
He joined the investment bank Salomon Brothers, where he honed his skills, “helping financial institutions raise money and solve their financial problems,” he explains. After two years, he says he realized he was only there to learn how to acquire a financial institution, as he heard he should as a youngster. He, like Williams, became determined to move in that purpose, so he could help Blacks build financial security and wealth.
Cohee and Williams, who were business partners before they married, left their banking roles and bought Military Professional Services, an affinity credit card company that served U.S. military personnel. Their goal for the mail order credit card issuer, says Williams, was “to grow the company and use the platform to create a credit card for Black people.” But its backer, the now defunct Bank of Chicago, did not want to create a card for Black people, so the pair sold the business.
They used some proceeds from that transaction to pursue their dream of buying a Black bank, Boston Bank of Commerce, in 1995. To achieve national scale, they purchased three other Black banks—People's National Bank in Miami and Founders National Bank and Family Savings & Loan, both in Los Angeles—and became an internet bank.
Under the name “OneUnited,” which is a takeoff on “Unity,” they determined to reconnect the Black community and its allies by using these banks to create the economic base that Cohee says racial integration eliminated.
But, to increase Black deposits, they had to confront beliefs in the Black community about the inferiority of anything produced by Black people who were now used to working, living and buying white. “A division sowed among us made us think white people’s ice was colder than our own,” says Williams. She is referring to the practice of whites getting Blacks to buy goods and services from them only believing what they offer is superior to anything Black people produce.
They set about living up to the bank’s slogan since its founding, “The Bank with a Purpose,” and that purpose is to unify and build wealth in Black communities. This means providing services to fit the unique needs of the Black community, which weren’t being met by white lenders.
White lenders have historically underserved and discriminated against the Black community, specifically in their mortgage lending practices. The Black-white wealth gap means Blacks historically have fewer assets and less income because of racial discrimination.
A 2017 Boston Globe investigative series reported that, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, white households in the greater Boston region had a net worth of $247,000 and Black households had a net worth of just $8. (No, that’s not a typo.) So, Black banks have had difficulty building the deposits necessary to do mortgage and small business lending in their communities. Ownership in those key areas is the basis of American wealth.
“Banking is not our friend,” says Williams, speaking about white-owned banks. “It always has been racist, perpetuating myths about our inability to understand finance and manage money responsibly,” she adds. This belief extends both to individuals and Black-owned institutions, often making it difficult for Black banks to get institutional client deposits.
But events outside banking happening in the nation’s Black communities made it clear they had to stop saying “we wanted to be the Black Bank of America,” says Williams.
In 2015, two high profile police-involved shooting deaths of unarmed Black men sparked rage among Black America and its allies. That year, Michael Render, also known as rapper Killer Mike, went on the Tavis Smiley show and began urging Blacks to move their money to Black banks and credit unions, rather than protest in the streets.
Around the same time, Williams says, OneUnited, which always had been about Black empowerment, rebranded itself as an unapologetically Black bank.
“We are not a white bank with a Black face,” she asserts. She remembers the move being a risk, particularly since both she and Cohee call the bank one for the Black community and its allies. “We were afraid if we started identifying this way, white people wouldn’t bank with us and Black people wouldn’t bank with us,” she recalls.
But their commitment to leveraging Black spending, which is $1.3 trillion annually—to change the culture and end inequity and injustice against Blacks—forced the issue. They knew they had to make a full commitment to be an activist bank. Williams asked about their fears, “How could you talk to people about their money if you can't speak in your authentic voice and meet people where they are?”
Cohee adds, specific to being a community development financial institution, or CDFI, which serves low- and moderate-income communities, “Black banks have to provide a level of support to underbanked communities white-owned banks don’t.” He also says, “We’re trying to make financial literacy a core value in the Black community.” The bank provides financial education on its website to meet that goal.
OneUnited offers specialized programs to urban bankers that are not so readily found at mainstream banks. One is a second chance checking account for people who have difficulty getting them from mainstream banks because of inability to repay overdrafts. Another is a secured credit card supported by a credit rebuilding program. They also find ways around credit, income and documentation challenges to do more business and mortgage lending.
For example, one of their first Paycheck Protection Program loans was to an Uber driver, a single mother with seven children. “We looked, specifically, for someone who fit her profile to help because we knew other banks wouldn’t,” says Cohee.
The bank also supports racial justice movements. In July 2016, OneUnited committed to driving the #BankBlack movement forward to make it an initiative that went beyond news events that spur interest in the crusade. They say this is not to benefit OneUnited, but to increase deposits by Blacks and their allies in other Black-owned banks and credit unions.
The bank offers debit cards with multiple images that support Black identity in positive ways, from Harriet Tubman to “Doonie,” which features a young Black boy to celebrate the innocence of Black children.
“The bank actively supports #BlackLivesMatter, #TakeAKnee, the #1619Project and the incredibly successful #BlackOutDay2020,” says Cohee. “The Bank has consistently encouraged the Black community to use its considerable financial might more purposefully to send a message that is part protest, part progress.”
OneUnited, as the largest Black-owned bank in the U.S., offers the same products and services many mainstream banks do, particularly technologically. Its powerful fintech backend allows clients to bank online the same way they would at a larger bank, providing services like early pay direct deposit and mobile deposits with its app. It offers tap-to-pay debit cards, as well as online mortgage and credit card payments. The process for opening an account online from anywhere in the U.S. is fast and simple.
The bank’s technological sophistication—combined with its commitment to being unapologetically Black and serving the unique needs of its urban customers—has paid off significantly, according to Cohee and Williams. They say they’ve had 60,000 new accounts opened at the bank since the killing of George Floyd in May.
It’s also garnering corporate support. Earlier in September, OneUnited announced biotech giant Biogen’s $10 million investment in the Bank, “the first of its kind to be announced in corporate support of the #BankBlack movement,” their representatives say.
They invite others of all backgrounds to become account holders at their unapologetically Black bank. “You don't have to be Black to #BankBlack,” say Cohee and Williams. “We need and welcome allies.”