In December 1920, five of Wilson, North Carolina’s leading African-American citizens executed a certificate of incorporation to establish the Commercial Bank of Wilson. The bank was necessary, they asserted, “to promote thrift and economy,” “to encourage agriculture and industrial enterprises,” and “to place in circulation money otherwise unavailable.” Farmer, realtor and businessman Samuel H. Vick; barber William H. Hines; school principal J. James D. Reid; funeral home operator and businessman Camillus L. Darden and physician Frank S. Hargraves — the unquestioned cream of east Wilson‘s crop — each invested in 100 shares of bank stock and, after filing the document, set about designating a president (Hines) and board of directors (J.R. Rosser, Isaac A. Shade, Cain D. Sauls, Charles S. Thomas, R.A. Worlds, John Lucas, C.S. McBrayer, J.O. Mitchell, Lee Pierce, Alfred Robinson and Judge D. Reid), and a cashier (G.W.C. Brown).
Attached to the filing are three pages listing the names of all the bank’s investors and providing information about their net worth and occupation. Most of more than 150 shareholders — overwhelmingly African-American men — lived in Wilson or Wilson County, but adjoining counties like Wayne, Greene and Johnston were represented, as well as more far-flung cities like Durham and Elizabeth City, North Carolina. They were farmers and contractors, merchants and ministers, teachers and barbers, with estimated worths ranging from $300 to $50,000.
At least two of my relatives were among the bank’s investors. C.D. Sauls of Greene County, whose connection through Daniel Artis I chronicled here, was a bank officer, and his cousin Columbus E. Artis, who owned and operated a funeral business in Wilson, bought five shares.
Newspapers reported the bank’s opening excitedly.
Wilmington (NC) Morning Star, 18 November 1920.
Elizabeth City The Independent, 25 February 1921.
In the 1921-1922 issue of The Negro Year Book: An Annual Encyclopedia of the Negro, Monroe N. Work, editor, Commercial Bank of Wilson was listed as one of only eight black banks in the state of North Carolina, which trailed only Virginia (13) and Georgia (9) in the number of such institutions. [Sidenote: one of Virginia’s was Crown Savings Bank of Newport News, for which my great-grandfather John C. Allen served as board member.]
Alas, things fell apart. After a fire in the vault destroyed records, the State launched a criminal investigation that resulted in the closing of the bank on 4 September 1929 and the indictments of vice-president (and chief promoter) J.D. Reid and cashier H.S. Stanbank on charges of embezzlement, forgery and deceptive banking practices. As reported in the 22 February 1930 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier, the courtroom was daily packed with victimized depositors and shareholders, all of whom bore an “intense feeling of resentment against the accused….” Both were convicted and sentenced to five-year prison terms — at hard labor — but released after two years.
Burlington Daily Times-News, 22 December 1931.