Historical Markers
Citizens and Southern Bank Historical Marker
Mouse over for marker text

Citizens and Southern Bank

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
19th and South Sts., Philadelphia

Behind the Marker

"These are peculiar times. You meet people everywhere in a particular frame of mind; distrust and suspicion are easily generated; folks may doubt today what they never questioned before."

Bank president Major Richard R. Wright standing in front of the Citizens and Southern Bank, wearing a coat and hat,  prepares to enter through two double, barred  doors.
Bank president Major Richard R. Wright standing in front of the Citizens and...
That sentiment, expressed by a member of the Allentown Bankers Association after that city's first bank failure in 1931, conveyed the mood of many Pennsylvanians during the early years of the Great Depression. The stock market crash and the subsequent financial crisis eroded America's confidence in its financial institutions, including the once trusted banks that occupied Main Streets in communities across the Commonwealth.

Although most of Pennsylvania's private banks withstood the Stock Market crash in 1929, concerns about bank solvency led to people to keep their money at home. Moreover, a run on deposits forced many banks in cities throughout Pennsylvania to liquidate their affairs and close their doors.

In June of 1931, the Allentown Trust Company - with 12,000 depositors and one million dollars in assets, it was one of that city's largest banks - announced that the steady withdrawal of deposits had forced it out of business. In the next few years, Allentown lost six of its ten banks.

The magnitude of the crisis was even greater in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania's largest city and, along with Pittsburgh, its financial center. In 1930, the United Strength Bank and Trust Company had been the city's first bank to close. During the next three years another fifty banks, including the seemingly indomitable Bankers Trust and Franklin Trust Companies, followed suit. To remain solvent, those that did manage to survive were forced to cut corners or merge with larger banks.

Bank failures represented a tremendous threat to Pennsylvania's economy, but governmental response was largely ineffective. The state Banking Department struggled in vain to enforce state regulations, which the crisis compelled many financial institutions to break. Faced with a collapse of the nation's financial system, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared a four-day national banking "holiday" on March 4, 1933. In hopes of avoiding future crises, Roosevelt proposed a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to guarantee individual deposits and thus restore depositors' confidence.

Customers stand outside the locked doors of the back, reading a sign on one of the doors.
Run on the Erie National Bank, Sixth and Erie Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, 1931.
Following the federal moratorium, only sixteen national banks and thirty-eight state banks and trust companies were able to reopen their doors in Philadelphia. Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust Company, located on the corner of 19th and South Streets, was one of them. What makes its survival all the more remarkable was the fact that it was owned and operated by and for African Americans.

In the early 1900s African Americans had limited opportunities to deposit their savings or for the loans needed to finance businesses. Even before the onset of the Great Depression, most struggled against poverty and discrimination. With their meager earnings often depleted before the next paycheck, many African Americans had little left for savings and investment. Dependent upon this small and unstable source of funds, black banks were exceptionally vulnerable to the Great Depression. Out of the 134 black-owned banks established between 1888 and 1934, only twelve remained in operation in 1938.

Much of Citizens' resilience owed to the vision of its founder and president, "Major" Richard R. Wright. The son of slaves, Wright had turned to banking after a long and distinguished career as an administrator at a small black technical school in Georgia. There, Wright had become a disciple of Booker T. Washington and his philosophy of Negro self help. Like many others who operated from this tradition, Wright was deeply concerned about African Americans' slow economic advancement, and well aware of the high rate of failure among black-owned businesses.

Standing before a  crowd,   (L to R), Mrs. Mason, daughter Frances, Mr. Mason, son Benjamin Jr. and Raymond Pace Alexander, Phil. Lawyer, counsel for the Masons who introduced them.
Mr. and Mrs. Benjamin Mason with lawyer Raymond Pace Alexander at the dedication...
Wright recognized that much of the problem was due to the absence of a reliable financial infrastructure. There was also the issue of discrimination, even in the North. Most white banks refused loans to African Americans, regardless of creditworthiness or the soundness of the business plan.

During the 1920s, markerRaymond Pace Alexander, a prominent black Philadelphia attorney and a future board member of Citizens and Southern, urged a boycott of white-owned banks precisely for this reason. "There are many Negroes who deposit large sums of money every year in the Girard Trust Company and yet if a colored man owned City Hall he would be unable to get a first mortgage on it at this bank. They absolutely refuse to lend money, in any manner, to Negroes." Wright believed the solution lay in building and supporting a community network of banks and savings and loans.

After moving to Philadelphia, Wright opened his Citizens and Southern Bank and Trust in September, 1920. By 1922, the bank had amassed $100,000 and 4,000 depositors, many of them, like himself, recently arrived southern migrants. During the 1920s, Citizens and Southern helped launch dozens of small businesses throughout the city's African-American neighborhoods. By the end of the decade, it had grown to 11,000 depositors and about $2.5 million in deposits.

Citizens and Southern weathered the bank crisis of the early 1930s due to its directors' fiscally conservative policies - policies that had angered many potential African-American loan seekers during the economic boom of the 1920s. Rather than retreating from the crisis of the Great Depression, Citizens and Southern aggressively sought more depositors. It received yet another vote of confidence when in 1934 it became one of only eight black-owned banks to qualify for membership in the newly created Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

Fittingly, Citizens and Southern continued to concern itself with matters beyond dollars and cents. Wright supported or spearheaded numerous causes, including "National Freedom Day," an annual celebration of the adoption of the 13th Amendment, and creation, in 1939, of the Booker T. Washington postage stamp, the first U.S.marker stamp honoring an African American. After World War II, Citizens and Southern opened branches around the city. Wright remained its president until his death in 1947.
Back to Top