“Are you a soul sister?” the man demanded.
“Damn right,” Sewell told him.
The brick-thrower walked away.
And Industrial Bank, which sits at 11th and U streets NW, was spared during three days of riots that followed the April 4, 1968, assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. No windows were broken. No fires were set. No bottle rockets were thrown into the lobby, where the bank’s founder, Jesse Homer Mitchell, once sat taking loan applications from black people who could deposit money in the city’s white-owned banks but couldn’t get loans from those same institutions.
Industrial Bank, which was founded in 1934 during the Great Depression, had financed loans for black churches, black businesses and black people buying houses. The bank, with its golden vault, stood in a prime location on U Street, fueling the wealth on what was known as Black Broadway. The street was a black-financed world of black theaters and jazz clubs, black lawyers and pharmacists, black newspapers and flower shops. It also housed the local offices for two major civil rights groups, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).
Over the years, Industrial Bank had built a large and dedicated customer base. Celebrities — including Duke Ellington, who lived on T Street a couple of blocks away, heavyweight champion Joe Louis, singers Ethel Waters, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole — were customers and friends of the bank’s board members. When Sidney Poitier, star of the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” came to Washington, he visited the bank.
Patricia Mitchell, granddaughter of Jesse Mitchell, was a little girl when the uprising erupted.
“I remember hearing about it,” she said, sitting in the lobby of Industrial Bank, where she now serves as executive vice president.
SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael, she recalled, “had an office across the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl. He came into Ben’s Chili Bowl and said Martin Luther King had been shot. They turned on the radio. Then they heard he had died. People cried and cried.”
Then a brick was launched at Peoples Drug at 14th and U streets, she said, and the violence began.
Her brother, B. Doyle Mitchell Jr., now the bank’s president, said their parents made them stay in the house during the riots. “I remember for a while we couldn’t go out of the house,” he said. “I remember my father leaving with a couple of men. They were going to check on the bank.”
Born in 'the rubble'
On Aug. 20, 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, Industrial Bank of Washington opened with six employees.
“The bank’s first customer was Lewis A. Johnson, the contractor who had written to President Roosevelt” about the need for a black-owned financial institution, according to “Industrial Bank,” a book about its history. “Many white banks sent flowers as a show of respect to [Jesse] Mitchell and a fellow bank rising from the rubble of the Great Depression.”
As president of the bank, Mitchell would sit in the lobby, where he reviewed loan applications. Talley Holmes Sr. — a D.C. schoolteacher who was also a real estate investor, owner of the Whitelaw Hotel, one of the original board members of the Industrial Bank of Washington, and one of the founders of the American Tennis Association — often stood outside talking to customers about taking on second mortgages.
“We would make first mortgages, and Talley Holmes Sr. would make second mortgages,” Patricia Mitchell said. “When the bank closed at 2 p.m., my grandfather and Talley Holmes Sr. would visit houses to appraise them.”
Industrial Bank has stayed in the Mitchell family for three generations: Jesse Mitchell’s son — B. Doyle Mitchell Sr. — became the bank’s president in 1954. Then Doyle Jr. and Patricia took over after their dad died in 1993.
In 50 years of operation since the riots, the bank has continued to grow, even as thousands of people moved to the suburbs, even as a crack-cocaine epidemic gripped the city in the 1980s, even as Metro construction all but shut down U Street in the 1990s.
Other businesses were crushed, Doyle Mitchell said, but “we survived.”
'Everything was burning'
During the riots, black business owners used bars of soap to write “Soul Brother” in storefront windows. The black businesses on U Street that remained opened included Lee’s Florist and Ben’s Chili Bowl.
“We put a ‘Soul Brother’ sign out front,” recalled Rick Lee, whose family still owns Lee’s Flower Shop, which is cater-cornered from Industrial Bank. “A lot of folks were doing that. That made a difference.”
Lee was 25 and working for the Peace Corps the day King was shot. “My mom was in the store at the time. My dad had gone to Boston for a funeral. I knew I needed to get to the flower shop,” Lee recalled. “I had to walk to the flower shop from Connecticut and H. Everything was burning. It was pretty wild. Something you may never see in a lifetime.”
They placed chairs near the window, but not too close. “We had a 12-gauge shotgun,” Lee said. “We knew from the news that Peoples Drug store was being burned and looted. It was a crazy scene. All the stuff burning around U Street and 14th Street. It was chaotic.”
Virginia Ali, 84, who worked at Industrial Bank as a teller before opening Ben’s Chili Bowl with her husband in 1957, remembers someone rushing in the door saying King was shot.
“We didn’t want to believe that,” Ali said.
People on U Street were in tears, but sadness quickly turned to anger. “There were just gangs of young people,” Ali said. “You didn’t know whether you would get a molotov cocktail through your window. You see buildings burning. When I think about it, it was so terribly frightening.”
When the riots were over, the fires had been extinguished, commercial hubs in D.C.’s black neighborhoods were left in ruins. More than 7,600 people had been arrested, many for looting. Ten people died in the violence. And more than 1,200 fires caused damage estimated at more than $13 million, according to a report by the D.C. Redevelopment Land Agency.
The result was devastating to black people who owned houses near riot corridors. The median value of property owned by black people fell dramatically, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. “Between 1964 and 1971, civil disturbances (as many as 700, by one count) resulted in large numbers of injuries, deaths, and arrests, as well as considerable property damage, concentrated in predominantly black areas,” a 2004 report said.
In D.C., the damage lingered for years. People were reluctant to invest in the city; the rioting affected insurance premiums, and fueled unemployment, crime and poverty.
The same was true in other major cities that had riots. The violence had an almost immediate negative impact on black neighborhoods and business districts across the country, said Robert Margo, professor of economics at Boston University who worked on the NBER report as a research associate.
“It had a severe effect. We are talking about almost a 40 percent negative effect on the value of African American property values,” he said.
In the aftermath of the riots, Margo said, many state and local governments directed resources toward rebuilding. “This didn’t reverse the decline,” he said.
His study concluded: “If you were an African-American homeowner and had a house in the vicinity of a severe riot, it hurt your wealth. Your wealth took a hit. This was especially important for African American wealth.”
'A lot of foreclosures'
The Mitchells saw the effects firsthand. By the 1990s, Patricia Mitchell said, “People didn’t want to live in the U Street area. We ended up with a lot of foreclosures.
“At one point in the late ’90s, we had 13 at one time. ... People were giving us the keys.” The vacant houses were filled by “squatters and crackheads,” she said.
“We had property foreclosed at 12th and V. We couldn’t give it away,” Patricia Mitchell said. “One of our employees finally bought the house and still lives there.”
But, once again, Industrial Bank survived, even expanding. In 1994, the bank opened two branches in Prince George’s County — in Forestville and in Oxon Hill.
That year, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., there were 54 black-owned banks across the country. More than 20 years later, there were only 21.
The Industrial Bank’s deposits have grown from the $250,000 in 1934 to $337 million by the end of 2017, Doyle Mitchell said.
A growing segment of that base includes millennials. In 2016, rapper Killer Mike announced in an MTV and BET town hall meeting a drive to get people to invest in black banks. The twitter hashtag #bankblack trended.
“Millennials want to support black businesses,” Patricia Mitchell said. “And people want to support local businesses.”
These days, Industrial Bank customers are increasingly diverse, with white newcomers making deposits alongside African Americans. When the bank opened a branch in Anacostia in 2009, the first customer to make a deposit was a white man.
The bank has witnessed — and profited from — a remarkable resurgence along the U Street corridor. The houses that were once worth nothing are now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, making them sources of wealth for black homeowners but putting them out of reach for many black buyers. Rents have soared above $2,400 a month for some one-bedroom apartments.
“The city’s population is increasing by almost 1,000 people a month. There is new development and housing going up,” Doyle Mitchell said. “For our bank, the future is very bright.”
As for the future of black customers, “that depends on who you are,” he said. “If you are low and moderate income, there is a need to increase education and technical skills. As the world becomes more technology-oriented, that will require another level of training and education.
“The future of black people is in our own hands.”