Jamie Smith Hopkins
Center for Public Integrity
This is the final part of a five-part story published in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity and USA TODAY.
WATERLOO, Iowa — When Matthew Gilbert heard about the Bank of Jabez, it pinged an old memory: his great-aunt telling him that his great-grandfather had started a bank.
Gilbert, an attorney who works on economic inclusion and talks regularly with ReShonda Young about how to move the needle in Waterloo, started digging.
He found that his ancestor, Dr. Lee Furgerson, joined forces in 1947 with other Black community leaders to launch the Black Hawk Savings & Loan Association, named after their county. It opened in the building where Furgerson practiced.
Perhaps this institution helps explain Waterloo’s huge jump in Black homeownership between 1940 and 1950. It’s hard to know because so few records are left.
Furgerson, the first Black physician in the city, died the year after the savings and loan’s founding, the victim of an intestinal obstruction. He was just 49. Another of the four founding officers died two years after that.
Gilbert, thinking of the health toll of discrimination and the wealth toll of lost working years, looked for more details about the financial institution’s existence and couldn’t find anything beyond the late 1950s.
Young’s efforts looked to him like a new chance. “Here in Waterloo, it could be a really powerful example,” said Gilbert, tapped to be on the Bank of Jabez’s board.
As summer turned to fall, Young continued talking with Stacey Bentley, the Community Bank executive. She also pitched to individuals with money to invest, some from out of state. She and her family went door-to-door in Waterloo neighborhoods, some comfortably well-off, some not, asking people to commit to opening accounts at a future Bank of Jabez.
In October came a turning point — for another prospective Black bank. Organizers in Columbus, Ohio, filed an application with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. seeking approval to open. They’re hoping to begin operating in the fall of 2022.
Their Adelphi Bank might be the one to break the 22-year drought in Black bank startups.
But not, most likely, as a Black-owned bank. Instead, it would be a Black-led one.
Organizers are aiming to meet an alternative federal definition of a minority bank that’s based on board composition and communities served, said Kevin L. Boyce, an Adelphi co-founder. Even in Columbus, 13 times the size of Waterloo and home to nearly a quarter-million more Black residents, the money test looked formidable.
“That’s part of the challenge with wealth distribution in America,” said Boyce, a former Ohio state treasurer. “We’ve been fortunate to have other partners with us, both institutional and individuals that are not minority, that have joined in our efforts.”
Though Waterloo has Iowa’s highest share of Black residents, it’s modest enough — 18% — that a new bank would need to serve a broader demographic. Young was pretty sure the harder road was her only alternative: Just over half the money would have to come from Black individuals.
Thinking about the momentum she’d have if she could get the other 49% covered, she drafted a pitch to give to Community’s parent company. In between meetings with Bentley to prepare, she’s worked to recruit board members and executives.
For now, the bank’s future remains a question mark. Will the money come? Can she launch it?
Young said she’s determined to get there. To see it open someday.
Which is why she’s already made an offer on a property for it.
In the summer of 2021, Young visited a church property for sale in an east-side neighborhood of small homes, some in disrepair, to see if its kitchen could work for home-cooking entrepreneurs needing commercial-grade resources. The 97-year-old brown brick building and an addition that once housed a parish school stretched nearly the length of a block, with a parking lot and empty land on the other side of the street.
There was room not just for the home cooks, but also for small businesses ready to rent their first space. She could imagine the Bank of Jabez across the street — 13 blocks from the former site of the Black Hawk Savings & Loan.
What she didn’t yet know: Fifteen years before she’d texted her cousin about a bank she felt God calling her to open, the pastor of this church sat up in bed in the middle of the night with a vision from God to incubate five businesses on the property.
Pastor Faye Scott said she tried to make it happen, but it never came to pass. Eventually her Ambassadors for Christ Church needed to sell this too-big home. An offer fell through. An auction drew no one. The boiler broke, the pipes burst.
And now here was Young, explaining about the bank and the small businesses. Five of them already were interested. For Scott, it was like a promise from God that the first vision was no mistake.
“I couldn’t help but get on board,” Scott said.
She offered the entire property to Young for $22,500.
Young, amazed, started digging into the old building’s challenges. She talked to her cousin and lawyer. On a warm September afternoon, she returned in a Bank of Jabez T-shirt — “Experience Excellence,” it said — to meet with Scott. In the sanctuary, light filtering in through the stained-glass windows, she handed the pastor a purchase agreement.
“Knowing that it’s yours,” Scott asked, “how do you feel?”
“I’m still very carefully suppressing emotions,” Young admitted.
There were so many steps left that she needed to stay focused on, not all of which the original list of 74 included. The real estate deal wasn’t official yet and a legal battle over a mechanic’s lien on the property could upend things. Contractors weren’t getting back to her. The building needed a new heating system ASAP. Small businesses couldn’t move in until rooms were readied for them.
She didn’t want to tear her gaze from the path ahead by looking back at how far she’d come.
“It’s a time to rejoice,” Scott insisted. With a mischievous smile, she added, “Just take a couple of minutes. Go ahead, girl.”
Young didn’t have a couple of minutes. But for one unguarded second, she let out a joyful laugh.
You can hear a podcast about Young’s quest in the newest season of The Heist.
Jamie Smith Hopkins is a senior reporter and editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates inequality. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @jsmithhopkins.