Juneteenth Edition 5 Inspirational Historical Black Leaders in Finance

June 19, 2024

Declared a federal holiday on June 17, 2021, Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas to free the last remaining enslaved Black people in the state – over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. This day, now known as Juneteenth, marks the end of slavery in the United States and celebrates the enduring spirit of African Americans.

Juneteenth is a testament to the resilience and hope of African Americans who continued to strive for equality and success despite systemic barriers. In honor of this historic day, we highlight five inspirational Black leaders in finance who broke barriers and significantly impacted the financial industry.

Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker, an extraordinary African American entrepreneur, broke both gender and racial barriers by becoming the first Black woman to establish and preside over a bank in the United States. In 1903, she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, VA. Under her leadership, until her death in 1934, the bank empowered women economically and bolstered Richmond’s Black middle class. Walker’s remarkable achievements came despite the challenges of the Jim Crow era, highlighting her trailblazing resilience and vision.

Alonzo Herndon

Born into slavery, Alonzo Herndon rose to prominence as a successful barber and entrepreneur, eventually founding the Atlanta Life Insurance Company – one of the most successful Black-owned insurance businesses in the nation. By the time of his death in 1927, Herndon was Atlanta’s wealthiest Black resident, owning more property than any other African American in Georgia. His journey from sharecropper to influential businessman underscores the power of perseverance and strategic investment.

Lila St. John

In 1953, Lila St. John became the first African American woman to pass the New York Stock Exchange exam. Born in 1923 in Milwaukee, WI, she hosted her own television show on a local Milwaukee station before transitioning into the world of investing working as an investment counselor at Oppenheimer & Company. Although details of her life are scarce, St. John’s achievements paved the way for future generations of Black women in finance.

Clifton Wharton Jr.

Clifton Wharton Jr. achieved numerous historic firsts in his career, including becoming the first African American president of Michigan State University and the first Black Deputy Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton. Wharton attended Harvard at the age of 16 where he earned his bachelor’s degree followed by a master’s degree in International Affairs from John Hopkins University and a Doctorate of Economics from the University of Chicago. He went on to lead as one of the first Black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, managing a $260 billion pension fund. Wharton’s career is marked by groundbreaking accomplishments and leadership.

Mary T. Washington

Mary T. Washington overcame significant personal challenges to become the first Black woman in the United States to earn a CPA license in 1943. Washington made it her life’s mission to hire and mentor other Black aspiring CPAs. Washington’s efforts dramatically increased the number of Black accountants in post-war America, particularly in Chicago, fostering new opportunities within the accounting profession.

The achievements of these leaders highlight the profound impact African Americans have had on the financial industry. As we celebrate Juneteenth, let us honor their legacy and continue to build on the foundations they laid, ensuring that the pathways they forged remain open and accessible to future generations.