At 45, William B. Fitzgerald is a successful black businessman and president of Independence Federal Savings and Loan, one of Washington's six minority-controlled financial institutions.
Fitzgerald and others founded Independence Federal eight years ago, breaking into a "totally segregated, lily white industry" in Washington. The group, which included both blacks and whites, made its move, Fitzgerald said, after realizing that, "We must begin to think in terms of controlling some portion of our GNP. Control of money is basically more important socially than the ownership of money because you can control a thousand times as much as you can own."
Independence Federal began putting about 65 per cent of its money into minority areas of the city, and has been successful at it. Its main office, lushly decorated with thick carpeting and African art, is located at 1229 Connecticut Ave., far from minority areas of the city.
"We originally opened at 624 E (NW)," said Fitzgerald. "They (Federal officials) tried to get us to (locate the main office in) Anacostia. We said, 'We'll die out there. We can't survive.' They finally let us have 624 E, and in 1974 we moved up to Connecticut Avenue."
A simple fact of life, according to Fitzgerald: minorities want to deposit their money in banks located in what they consider safe areas.
It goes hand-in-hand with another theme that Fitzgerald constantly presses: a minority businessman who wants to be successful must sell the white market, integrate, enter the mainstream.
To illustrate, Fitzgerald said he remembers visiting rural Virginia 25 years ago and seeing a roadside stand where an enterprising black watermelon salesman had displayed a sign. "White Folks Like 'Em Too!"
Fitzgerald laughs when he tells the story, relaxing in the small, elegant dining room in the rear of his bank's headquarters. So much has changed in 25 years. So much has not.
Fitzgerald is smooth. Yet deep down one can sense the anguish that was there, the hurts of the past. Here is a tough man who came up the hard way and who is still struggling for what he believes is right.
He began as a home insulation mechanic, helping to build a white-owned business from nothing to a large firm with 500 employees. Then he quit when it became apparent that he had gone "as high as black man can go" in the employ of a white man.
He then went into real estate on his own, rehabilitating, developing and selling houses. He started with three employees and build his business until he had 300, most of them whites with whom Fitzgerald said he maintained "a very fine ralationship."
Fitzgerald remembers when he would drive out on Fridays to pay his workers. They would usually be having coffee in a local fast-food restaurant and, because Fitzgerald as a black was not allowed to enter the restaurant, he would sent the pay envelopes in with a white secretary in his employ.
"It was just horrible," he sums up now, smiling briefly at the thought.
Despite a decade of government aid programs, Fitzgerald said, "Blacks, in business are not doing as well as they might and ougth to be doing, and there is no single answer as to why the success rations are not higher."
For one thing, Fitzgerald said, "The atmosphere that we live in in this country today makes it very difficult for a person of any color to start a business: to comply with rules and deal with bureaucracy and the paperwork, sticky local ordinances, retirement and pension plans . . .
"You end up spending (a lot of money) having to hire lawyer, accountants who are specialists. You need to compete by using computers . . . The overhead is so tremendous it's just a terrible drain on a small shop . . .
"Add to that that most minorities have historically come from a background totally void of business per se . . . I grew up in an atmosphere where my father never (discussed business). Running a business was not discussed in black homes. We were workers. There were no legacies. Ninety-nine per cent of the parents were not in a position to give their children a jump: you couldn't go to your dad for a stake, or ask questions . . .
"These things build generation after generation, and there's no foundation in the black community. All your parents could do was to work two or three jobs trying to get you to college . . . The coaching and advice that the average white successful businessman has (was absent).
"A white businessman may have entered a business without a cash legacy from his parents or without his father having been in that business, but if he looks back he had someone - a cousin, an uncle - who was in business. And he had the further advantage of being able to interrelate socially. He could go to the country clubs, the restaurants. He could sit next to the power structure."
Fitzgerald paused a moment, then voiced an old theme:
"We've got plenty of laws on the books, but you cannot legislate a man's heart, nor do I think it's desirable. Eventually through education we'll have that breaking down and interrelating on the social business levels, (through) love and respect. . .