In the heart of downtown Raleigh, across from a bustling outdoor café, there’s a blocky, inconspicuous concrete building that’s sat on the corner of East Hargett Street for a century. Inside, it’s quiet. A few bank tellers answer phone calls and serve customers behind a large granite countertop. The manager sits in her office, meeting with hopeful entrepreneurs.
The Raleigh branch of Mechanics and Farmers (M&F) Bank, which opened in 1923, wouldn’t be unique among city businesses, except for one thing: M&F Bank is one of the few Black-owned financial institutions in North Carolina, where clients can deposit money and secure loans free from the threat of racism that has plagued financial and other institutions.
Today, even as many businesses try to become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive, welcoming spaces for Black customers can be rare. Often, African Americans who are simply going about their days, grocery shopping or eating at a restaurant, are approached by security guards who question their presence or employees who ask, with a hint of challenge, “Can I help you?” Who can forget the 2018 arrests of two innocent Black men at a Philadelphia Starbucks, a business well known for allowing patrons to linger?
The Triangle is no different. While there are some spaces that seem open to Black residents, others still seem off-limits, a remnant of the racial segregation that dominated the United States for more than 100 years.
“Racism is such a scavenger ideology,” says Lee Baker, a cultural anthropology professor at Duke University. “One of the places we’ve seen it the most is in the schools. The schools have almost resegregated.”
“On the other hand,” he continues, “it is so nice to be able to walk into an Applebee’s in Raleigh, Durham, even Chapel Hill, and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is the community I live in.’ Same thing if you walk into Food Lion.”
From Baker’s perspective, many of the most popular businesses in the Triangle have a diverse customer base—places like Biscuitville, Angus Barn, and many historically Black churches, Baker says. But he also sees spaces that are “white white,” in his words, like Whole Foods, “chic” boutiques, or some vegan restaurants.
The racial barriers here are hard to see—they can be social or cultural, Baker says. One of the things that can lower those barriers is intentionality, he says. Business owners and managers have to work hard to diversify staff and customers.
Historically, some of the highest racial barriers can be found at banks and hospitals. So this month, INDY Week talked to people in those industries who are intentionally carving out spaces for the Triangle’s Black community.
In 1907, the United States was segregated, lynchings were common, and most Black residents had lost their right to vote through a combination of poll taxes and literacy tests. The once thriving Black middle class was on the decline.
In the middle of this nadir of race relations, when members of the Ku Klux Klan were marching in the streets, M&F Bank was founded in Durham.
With Black North Carolinians barred from “white-only” banks, M&F was one of the few places they could manage money and build wealth. Founded by nine prominent Black businessmen—including NC Mutual founder John Merrick, NC Central University founder James Shepard, and brick manufacturer and later bank president Richard Fitzgerald—the bank quickly became a cornerstone of Durham’s Black Wall Street.
“We always let [customers] know where we started and why,” says Jumeekah Ingram, the manager of M&F Bank’s Raleigh branch. “Black individuals, we didn’t have a place to put our money or to get a loan. That’s where it all started, on Black Wall Street in Durham.”
Today, M&F Bank’s mission is the same. Namely, to support Black-owned businesses and make loans to people for things like home repairs, medical bills, or the purchase of a car. In 2021, during COVID, the bank issued about $35 million in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, to help businesses keep paying their employees during shutdowns.
“We saved 3,000-plus jobs,” said James Sills, president and CEO of M&F Bank, in an interview with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. “Sixty-five percent of those [businesses] were minority-owned. So that’s how I know we’re making a difference every single day.”
In finance, trust can be a hard thing to come by. A lot of people—even those who haven’t been historically excluded from financial opportunities or disproportionately affected by financial crashes—avoided banks after the Great Recession. So for Ingram, listening to customers and responding to their needs is the most important part of the job, she says.
“When you bank with Mechanics and Farmers, you’re not a number,” Ingram says. “[You’re] family.”
The truth of that statement is evident. When you call the bank’s Raleigh branch, you don’t get an automated response, you get Amy, a customer service rep who’s been working at the bank for nearly 25 years. When one customer walks in the door, Ingram is quick to greet him by his name.
“How are you doing?” she asks. “How’s the baby?”
Regular customers of M&F Bank often have parents or grandparents who banked with the institution, Ingram says. Years later, they may bring their children in to start their first savings account.
“It gives [people] joy, confidence, knowing they can rely on a financial institution that will stick by them, be responsive to their needs, and be enthusiastic about them as well,” Ingram says. “To see someone bringing their child to open up their savings account … you’re instilling in them, at that moment, financial literacy. When back in, you know, 100-plus years [ago], we didn’t have that.”
In North Carolina, as in many other states, African Americans face much higher rates of illness and death than their white counterparts.
From 2012 to 2016, African Americans died from diabetes at more than double the rate of white people, according to NC Department of Health and Human Services. In 2016, about 11 percent of African Americans went without health insurance, while about 9.2 percent of white people went without health insurance. And from 2013 to 2016, Black mothers died at nearly double the rate of white mothers.
For Alicia Taylor, the founder of Zebulon Birth and Wellness, this isn’t news. Taylor, who is a birth and postpartum doula as well as an infant feeding specialist, works with pregnant people to create birth plans, make prenatal decisions, and advocate for their needs in the hospital.
“One of the things we ask about is ‘What are your goals for your labor experience?’ And oftentimes one of the first things they say is, ‘I just don’t want to die,’” Taylor says. “It’s a very real possibility, with the rates that are out there.”
Taylor had her own uncomfortable experience in the hospital when she gave birth to her first child. When doctors told her they needed to “get the labor going a little bit more” with hormone medication, Taylor was hesitant.
“I was all for [inducing labor], but I did say, ‘Hey, I’m a little sensitive [to hormone medication], so maybe we can start with the half dose.’ And the nurse looked at me and said OK and then proceeded to give me the normal amount,” Taylor says. “I think my labor experience would have been very, very different had they listened in that instance.”
Stories of doctors overlooking or simply ignoring Black women when they say something is wrong are prolific. And when doctors do dismiss those warnings, “it leads to consequences for the mother and baby,” Taylor says.
“The implicit or explicit bias of the medical provider sometimes plays a role in whether they’re able to access the ability to hear [patients], to really understand that something is wrong and it needs attention.”
Much of Taylor’s job involves educating pregnant people on the birth process.
“Knowledge is power,” she says. “So we do a lot of education on the front end before we even get to labor … so that when you are there, you have an understanding of what’s happening. You have an understanding of what your options are.”
With her knowledge of the labor process, Taylor can help cut through medical jargon and explain what doctors are recommending. She also helps amplify her clients’ voices during labor, so they can get their questions answered and make their wishes heard.
“Once we get to delivery day, we are a sounding board to help them make decisions and birth from a place of confidence,” Taylor says. “It’s really a personal experience, and doctors and nurses aren’t always able to take the time to really flesh out a decision, the pros, the cons. … But a doula can, that’s what we’re trained to do. It’s like we have this magical power to stop time.”
For Taylor, the most important part of her job is being there for her clients—through pregnancy, through birth, and through new motherhood in the role as a friend, an expert, and an extra pair of hands. She wants to make sure new mothers know they’re not alone. If they have to throw up their hands and walk away from their baby, “I’m not judging you,” Taylor says.
Ultimately, Taylor’s not just carving out space for Black women in the hospital, she’s helping them create space for themselves in their own homes. Space to feel joyful, overwhelmed, and even sad about motherhood, without feeling guilty.
“I can’t describe the feeling of gratitude I have to be a part of birth stories, and to be a part of families starting off in such a good place, feeling empowered,” Taylor says. “You don’t want to work yourself out of a job, but it is really joyful for me when I do, because that means this family has confidence in their own ability. They are aware that they can do hard things. Labor and parenting is hard, but they can do it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story miscaptioned the photo of M&F Bank manager Jumeekah Ingram. It has been corrected.
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