Monday, July 22, 2013

Michelle Purnell-Hepburn, VP / Controller

Michelle Purnell-Hepburn like her parents before her works in banking. Her family had an outsized impact on the Central Area through the Liberty Bank, black-owned and community supported it was the first African American bank in Seattle

Photo: Madeline Crowley we come, these few people wanting to start a minority-owned bank. I just think the powers that be were not quite prepared for that at that time.  

About Michelle:

Michelle Purnell-Hepburn has spent her life in financial institutions, literally learning at her father's knee, then working at the Liberty Bank when young. The Liberty Bank was the first African-American owned bank at that time west of the Mississippi. It is an important part of Central Area history. 

Michelle on the Central Area & Liberty Bank:

Where did your family live in the Central Area?

My family lived on the outskirts, on Lake Washington, in what is now the Mount Baker neighborhood. That’s where I grew up. We had been the first (African-American) family north of the bridge on Lake Washington. Unfortunately that house is gone due to the ‘new’ I-90. The State voted to create the new highway in 1958 but through politics and budget concerns it wasn’t actually started until 1982.

During those years, some of our neighbors decided to pay their mortgages and others decide to sell to the State. The State has the right to take properties through what is called Eminent Domain. By the time this was actually happening, we had already paid off our house. Since we owned our house, the state had to help us find a new place to live. It was different, though, for our neighbors who we’re renting, they had a very short time to vacate. Some of the houses that were across the street from our house are still there.

It’s hard to see your neighborhood destroyed that way. 

Your parents contributed to an important part of Central Area history, they were part of the Liberty Bank.

Well, the Liberty Bank of Seattle was a dream of my father. He wanted African-Americans to have the ability to create their own destiny. 
Liberty Bank. Mr. Gould, Rev. McKinney, Dr. Jackson. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

Liberty Bank, though, was really an off-shoot of an existing financial institution already in the Central Area called Sentinel Credit Union. This was much like Salal Credit Union but much smaller. That had began I believe in late 1940s, maybe the 50s, and the original membership were the Masons.

These were the Prince Hall Masons who met in the Central Area just off of Cherry Street. So on the corner was the “Facts Newspaper,” Fitzgerald Beaver was the proprietor there. One block east was the Masonic Hall, which I believe is condos now, across the street was the (then PhyllisWheatley) YWCA

Liberty Bank. Interior. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

That corner of the Central District was where the Sentinel Credit Credit Union started. I started working there when I was very small, embossing and stamping pamphlets. There was a stamp and you had to be very precise with it. I got my start there.

I have to admit that my father and his Masonic brothers, their dreams were bigger than a Credit Union. They wanted a financial institution. A bank.

My father, my mother and seven to eight other community leaders founded the Liberty Bank. The initial meetings, the gathering of signatures and the issuing of and the tracking of stock, that was all done in our basement. 

Liberty Bank. Original Application. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

 The Charter was applied for more than once and was denied. Eventually, the Charter it was approved and the Bank opened in late May 1960.
Who was the governing body? Why didn’t they approve the Charter initially?

The Department of Financial Institutions, a State division in Olympia, would have been the governing body of approving charters.

Liberty Bank. Telegram. Refusal of Charter. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn
 We were a state-chartered bank. The bank became the first minority-instituted bank west of the Mississipp

I think you have to look at time (as to why it was difficult to get a Charter), we’re talking about the 1960s. The Voting Rights Act had just been passed in 1964 or ‘65. This was the time of severe unrest in the south. There was a great migration of African-Americans out of the south and into the north. This was a very turbulent time. 

Liberty Bank. Dr. Jackson. Mr. Purnell (right). Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

At that same time, here we come, these few people wanting to start a minority-owned bank. I just think the powers that be were not quite prepared for that at that time.  

Can you explain what the situation was for the African-American community without having their own bank? What did that mean for the average person?  

For the average person that meant you had to go to the big banks, the SeaFirst Bank or the People's Bank or Seattle Trust. Then, you basically had to prove your worth, to prove that you had collateral. To prove that you maintained your home, and show that you had a business plan. I’m using terms that are used now that weren’t used then.

Liberty Bank. Opening Day. Mayor Braman. Gov. Evans. Mardine Purnell. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn
What happened to those who were not able to access banking services?

Without access to banking services you are forced to operate by the cash on hand in order to run your entire business. Or you’re finding credit through loan sharking which is charging you a ridiculous rate.  

Now, I hadn't thought about that, there must have been then a unofficial economy. If you can’t get loans from banks…

You borrow from friends, from family or from others.

And there was an active nightclub scene in the area...

There was. 

Liberty Bank. Interior. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

You mentioned earlier that you had family here before your parents arrived?

  My paternal grandparents arrived here in 1941. My paternal grandfather arrived here in the 1930s.  There's a family story that one of our family was here even earlier, though I can’t prove it.

My grandfather either wired or wrote a letter to my father telling him that the streets out here were paved with gold. That meant that you could come here and you could make a name for yourself. You could own property. You could have a business. The racial divide was not as wide here, which is why my parents moved out here. 

Liberty Bank. Opening Day Ceremony. Employees on a crowded sidewalk. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

This was the whole reason for the great migration out of the south. Just as an aside
there's a book called, “The Warmth of Other Suns,"  by a woman Pulitzer prize-winner reporter called Isabel Wilkerson. She wrote this book this book chronicles the great migration of African-Americans from the south. Before 1910, 90 to 95 percent African-Americans moved away from the south in a first migration. Given our history that makes sense.  

Then, between 1910-1970, there was another migration when sixty percent of those individuals moved up either the eastern seaboard, up the Mississippi, or to Chicago or out West. We’re talking millions of people moving, there was no leader, there was no call to action, people just moved. My grandfather was part of that, my parents were part of that, they actually moved up the Mississippi and then they headed west.

Liberty Bank. The first employees. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn
There's a reason why they're so many African-Americans from the south, from Louisiana in the Central District because what's that was the ‘track.’ Our track was from the Tennessee area, then to Chicago and then out to Washington, to Seattle, to the Central Area. My maternal grandparents came out after my parents.

So there was this move, this great migration of people to this new place. All in all, the ability to do make home and make a community in a place where there wasn't a huge African-American community (like there was in Atlanta GA) is absolutely amazing. They had to come to know who was in charge, who was the big power players. They had to learn who were the movers and shakers in the larger community and in the African-American community.
Liberty Bank. First Transaction. Teller Patrinell Wright. Customer Councilman Sam Smith.
Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn
To get things done, if you couldn’t go through the regular channels [like a bank], that means you figured out who to get help from. For example, if you wanted to own a house: you needed to talk to this person; if you wanted to open a business you had to talk to that person. People were extremely resourceful.

But by the 1960s, this this amazing group of individuals who founded this financial institution, wanted something more. Dare I say; they wanted legitimacy. That's not the right word, they wanted the African-American community to be recognized. They pooled their resources, which is basically what a credit union is, and if they pooled their resources, we could get on with each other and we wouldn’t need these other institutions [that were reluctant to serve ethnic and non-white businesses]. 

Liberty Bank. Board. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn
  The original Board Members were: Dr. James Jackson (who had his practice on Union);  Dr. Robert Joiner, (who had his practice on Madison, and he actually delivered me as well); Mr. Holbrooke Garrett, my mother, Mardine Purnell, was Secretary of the Board; Mr. Tokuda, (who had a drugstore in the Central Area on 34th). That was the only drugstore I ever went to until I moved away. They were wonderful people. In my father’s later years, they would deliver it to him when he couldn’t make the trip because we’d been customers for so long. I was so sorry to hear Kip, his son, had passed on).  

The Board also was: Rev. Samuel Berry McKinney (Pastor Emeritus of Mt. Zion); Phillip I Burton was the first President (he lived on Day and 32nd) and Mr. Jack Richlen. So these were people we saw all of the time. The ribbon cutting ceremony was an amazing day. Mayor Braman and Governor Evans, attended and it was such a proud day for the community.  Such a proud day!

I do have pictures of the first day, of the ribbon-cutting. It was an exciting time. It was a time of change. Liberty Bank was opened less than two months after Martin Luther King was killed and a few days before Bobby Kennedy was killed. 

(Despite that national event, the local paper “The Facts” gave an entire inside page to the opening of the Bank)

When you read about the tumult then, to have leaders killed, investigations to be unclear…

The country was still reeling from President John F Kennedy being killed. It was a scary time. There was such uncertainty. There were all kinds of threats on the Bank. We had threats on our family. Yet, my father and my mother and the directors felt this is what the community needs.

The ribbon-cutting was late May 1968 and my Dad became President in 1971, I believe. This meant having someone who had really strong skills, banking skills, for our fledgling bank and so my dad left Sentinel Credit Union to take on the Presidency. My Mom remained on the board.

And where my Dad went, I went. I had odd jobs from the time I was little, and I became a teller at the bank when I was in college.

Liberty Bank. First Day's Customers. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn
You must have always been really detail-oriented.

I had two really detail-oriented parents. My mother was an IRS auditor and my Dad was worked as a Civil Engineer for the Navy and the Credit Union. Being detail-oriented was part of my DNA.

So when the bank opened, and after, my parents were extremely protective of me, given the issues and tissues. Just people saying or doing stupid things. I think on some level there were some community members, some customers that needed charge offs. You had people who had loans and couldn’t pay it back.  There’s still of all of that, but even with that, it is still such a point of pride. Especially for the stockholders, they owned a piece of history.

You should talk to Dr. Rev. Samuel Berry McKinney; he and Mr. Richlen are the only surviving board members. Dr. McKinney also knew Dr. Martin Luther King. He’s a wonderful man.

Mr. William G. Lowe told me that at the time of the assassination of Dr. Rev. King there really was a big shift in the African-American community. There were people who believed in everything Dr. King embodied and there were also people who were younger and angry.

There was a loss of hope. And the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act those were symbols of hope, a hope that would not have even been a gleam in my grandparent’s eyes. Even after the Civil Rights Act, I think some of the divisions between the younger and the older were based on the fact that the older were the ones who had lived all their lives before the Voting Rights Act. They were the Migration, they were there in the south where every other day there was a lynching, that just was what it was. So, to tell them to forget that; it’s not possible.

When you live in a time when survival is preeminent that focus doesn't just disappear when the situation changes. That becomes hardwired.  

So, when the Bank found its footing can you think of a story that
shows how the bank was able to function in and for the community?

It’s so funny because I graduated to check filing for some time at the Bank. Honestly, I can remember what people's checks looked like at that time. 

Liberty Bank. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

I would say that the Liberty Bank was run very much like a credit union, and that’s how it functioned for the community. What I mean by that is my Dad knew everybody. He had been a Mason, he had lived in the Central Area. My Mom was in Eastern Star, and in various community clubs. We just knew a lot of people and they’d bring friends into the Bank to introduce them to us. So, they would now be known.

There were all sorts of businesses. My favorite businesses were Lloyd’s Heating Oil and Mr. Hill’s Barbeque. The bank had small business loans, all sorts of consumer checking accounts. Also, people just came into the Bank, especially if my Dad was there and his door was open, to talk. To talk about what was going on in the community, what was going on nationally, it was a hub for the community. People were excited when we put in in a walk-up and then a drive-through; that was a really big deal. Many of our customers had businesses down the street; Judge Stokes
 had law offices across the street. We were part of the daily fabric of the community. Miss Helen
 had her restaurant, Mr. Greenlee’s law offices were right next door to the bank, and they lived across the street from our house.

There was an incredible sense of belonging.

I guess, then, whatever you did somebody who knew you saw you do it…

That is so true, because again the African-American community was small in comparison with the total size of Seattle. We all did help raise ‘me.’ You’re right, if you did something it was going to get back to your parents. I remember once my sister was walking between 23rd and the Mt. Zion Church. Someone called my parents to say, ‘your daughter is on Madison Street.’ And she was just walking to school.

So, for me, oh yeah, there just was really nowhere I could go. Another time, fast-forward many years to 1999 and 2004, by that time my parents were in assisted living. I worked at Seattle Metropolitan Credit Union on 3rd & Columbia. Someone called my parents to say, I saw your daughter on the corner of 3rd & Columbia.  My Dad, he told me this. I just said, ‘I am way past grown and I work on 3rd & Columbia.’ I was just going across the street to get lunch. But in that community, you’re never too big. I just howled. I’m over 40 years old and people are reporting on me to my parents. My Dad said, ‘Remember, you’re still the baby.’

It’s a kind of love… I do think accountability is absolutely essential for you to become who you can be.

It kept me out of trouble. It kept my sister out of trouble, and my nieces. I’m very grateful that my parents were very strict

In that strictness, that’s why I get to do what I do today. I didn’t veer off the path very far. There was a sense of belonging.

People felt if they walked into Liberty Bank they were going to get a fair deal. I think, though, some people thought we were always going to say ‘yes.’ 

Liberty Bank. Transacting Business. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

So, what does it mean to be able to access credit when you have a small business?

Oh, it’s everything. Businesses run on credit, businesses run on being able to cover to pay expenses to stretch receivables if that’s what needs to be done. 

You can do that with a line of credit. A line of credit is a measure of trust that the financial institution will be there for you, and you are going to do your part to pay back that financial institution. It is the relationship of trust. And trust is huge in the African-American community. Trust is huge. It’s huge, period, but in the African-American community or any disenfranchised community, it’s even bigger.

To be able to own a home, you’re talking about the AmericanDream. African-Americans were finally able to step up and sit at the table of the American Dream on their terms. Not on someone else’s terms.

My husband’s family, came from sharecroppers from Lubbock TX. My husband’s grandfather was a sharecropper. My father’s father was a barber here. To have your own business is to call your own shots. To make it or break it on your own. So, to access a line of credit was huge.

For a business to access credit means to be able to grow a business and you can’t grow without that credit.

Even Rainier Bank or SeaFirst bank or when all of those banks started as a gleam in someone’s eyes, all of those at their start needed access to credit to get where they are today.

Can I hear more about how trust is important in banking?

I look at you and based on who you are, what you’ve done, the assets you have, and the plans that you have for your business or your life, I am deciding to give you money because I trust that you’re going to pay me back.

Liberty Bank. Councilman Sam Smith. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn
But then I’m actually willing to look at you, to listen to you, to hear your hopes and your goals because you want to buy a house, or start a business or whatever it is that you want to do.

The laws that we have now about non-discrimination those weren’t there then, so people could literally say, ‘We don’t lend to (people like) you. Before you even opened your mouth, before they even knew what your business was worth. Just because of what you looked like, just because you happened to have more melanin than someone else. The mainstream banks wouldn’t give you a chance. Yet, with someone else, an all American boy, they would give him a chance.

Do you think that’s changed?

No, not really. I think generally we are afraid of what we don’t know, so depending on how you were raised, depending on how old you are… If you were raised in a community that was integrated probably there was very little of that.

Still, I know that two of my friends, one is a Commissioner and one is a Judge were just in Nordstroms on their lunch hour, so they probably were dressed very much like a Judge and a Commissioner. They were profiled. They were followed in the store. This is a Judge and a King County Commissioner! All they’re doing is looking at clothing; clothing they can afford. They called it out and were told it wasn’t the case that they were being profiled

Unfortunately it happens everyday. There’s a wonderful woman, she and her husband have too lovely children of mixed race. Their children are gorgeous. On Queen Anne Hill last week someone said, ‘Those are such beautiful children you’re taking care of…’ She replied, ‘Thank you, they’re mine’. She was asked, ‘Both of them?’  She was just like (shakes her head)… sometimes you may think it but you don’t say it. Are they yours? Who else would they be? Do you also say that to a Caucasian who’s adopted an Asian child?

When you are in a small community and in you’re not in the majority, it takes resilience.

That’s why I think this project is important. It shows how diversity is a strength of a community and by extension that’s true for the country.

What that entails, though, is a belief in abundance rather than scarcity. If you want something that’s fine, because there is plenty to go around. When you believe that there is enough, when the belief in scarcity begins to change, there’s more opportunity for all of us. There really is plenty for all of us. That’s the belief system I grew up with. If I work hard enough, if I put my ducks in a row like anyone else, I’m not better than, not less than; I do my part.

They’ve done studies with people and people do tend to feel comfortable with people who look like them. They’re starting to study that in different cultures.

However, if you allow your children from a very early age to be just children then they figure out that all people are similar.  I think that to be born and raised in Washington there were some real perks in racial diversity and coming together. 

Liberty Bank. Staff. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

There were some real boundaries and some real drawbacks as well, not growing up in a community that was as far as the eye could see everybody looked like me. People my age who had that experience they have a very different connection to their community than I do.

Aaron Dixon talked about that, when his family moved from the south side of Chicago to here, it was an adjustment. 

I didn’t go to the south ‘til I was a grownup and I was scared spit less, because I had heard all the stories, all the stories of my parents, the stories on the news. It was 1987. I was scared to death. And yet, to go to the south and see in New Orleans the buildings with plaques that said, ‘Slaves Sold Here.’ I was just shocked.  We we’re in a buggy ride in the quarter and the driver felt the buggy jump when I saw the sign. I was agog. The driver was an African-American gentleman, and he said, ‘Baby, we built that building. You just remember, we built the south’. That was a whole different perspective than I had before I had been there. That changed my initial feeling that that plaque should be torn down and the building burned down, to instead the plaque should be seen by people. He said, ‘You remember that, we built the south’.

And today, with the change in the Voting Rights Act, you just want to say, really, really? Of everything that needs to happen in this country - is that really going to create more jobs? Is that going to help the economy? To think that you’re changing the Voting Rights Act to try and disenfranchise what will be the majority in the country, to make it hard for them to vote. 

Can you talk about the founding of the bank how it developed and ultimately how it was bought by Key Bank?

I remember the first dividend the Liberty Bank paid, it was such a proud moment. It might have been a few cents on the dollar. There was a dividend. The bank was going to start paying dividends; there was an amazing sense of pride. Every year we paid a dividend and increased it when we could. Shareholder meetings were held annually. I just remember discussions of meaty subjects about when people were moving into the Central Area or when people were moving out of the Central Area.

There were ads in the “Facts Newspaper” for loans and deposit rates. Back in 1979, I was working at the bank when interest rates rose to astronomical levels. I was assistant cashier and I did the investments that day and I invested at 21% overnight. My Dad said I could go home because I earned my keep for the day.

I worked at the Bank after school and during the summers from basically soon after my Dad came to the bank until when I graduated from college. I didn’t have the lending perspective of who we were lending to, I had the experience of helping the customers of Liberty Bank and being the conduit, if you will, of getting to my Dad. 

Liberty Bank. First Customers. Collection Michelle Purnell-Hepburn

It has been interesting going from Liberty Bank to a stint in high tech, then to the Metropolitan Credit Union. I have seen certain members of the Liberty Bank later at the credit unions I’ve worked for and they say, ‘Oh, here you are now’. So, I’ve seen people who are now at Salal Credit, who were members at Metropolitan and before that customers of Liberty Bank. That’s been a source of joy for me.

After my father retired, the then President of the Bank merged it into Key Bank.

You mentioned there was a movement of people out of the Central Area in the 1970s.  I’ve heard that the Black Middle Class moved out. Is that your view? 

I would say so, yes. As people realized that you could afford to move to Madison Park or Seward Park or Mt. Baker or wherever, as they believed that times had changed enough that if you did move and wanted to pursue the American Dream, you weren’t going to be killed. So, my parents had lived on Lake Washington Blvd. they moved in 1954 out of the Central Area proper and to the Mt. Baker area. It was like, we can! Now, in no way did we anticipate that it was going to hurt the community at all because where we banked and where shopped was still in the Central Area. Some were able to afford more and unfortunately we saw the grass was greener somewhere else instead of making it greener in the Central Area. Some of us did, but not all of us. 

What happened? It wasn’t just Black Flight, there was Asian Flight, White Flight

There was all kinds of Flight at that time.

There had to be something happening in the neighborhood too, there had to also be an impetus to move. Was something pushing people out?

I don’t know. Rev. McKinney would know, you should talk to him because that started before my time.

My oldest friend, since from when I was three years old, lived on 31st . We lived on Lake Washington Blvd about four blocks away. We went to Epiphany Day School together. Her father was a Judge and when he and his wife decided they could afford to move, they went to Seward Park.

My parent’s Flight was just earlier, it was when they could afford a view in 1954. When the bridge came, they had to move but they would have been happy to spend the rest of their days on Lake Washington Blvd.

They were the first in their family to have paid for their house. That was huge. And it was a huge blow when they were forced out. Then they moved to the southern end of the lake. People say, ‘Oh, you’ve got this big house’, but they don’t understand, we were happy where we were. It was a middle class house that they had painstakingly remodeled, it was their house, it was where they planned to spend the rest of their days. What happened later was because of White Flight, it was because of the bridge.

You can put so much love into a house. That must have been hard.

Especially for an African-American man, like my father, who moved here so he could own property. And own it lock, stock and barrel.

(I learned of Liberty Bank via the Central District News supplemented this with research and found Michelle Purnell-Hepburn)

©  Madeline Crowley People of the Central Area 2013   All material is covered by copyright. Express written permission must be given for any copyrighted material on this page. Email to request permission to copy or paste materials.
This project was supported in part by
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About Me

Seattle, WA, United States
I am not a professional photographer nor a trained journalist. At community meetings, it became clear that many of us don’t know each other. We haven’t heard each other’s stories and don't know each other’s circumstances. This is my attempt to give a few people the chance to tell their story, to talk about our community, to say their piece in peace. As such, comments have been disabled. The views and opinions expressed here are those of each narrator and do not necessarily reflect the position of views of the CentralAreaComm.blogspot blog site itself. The is not responsible for the accuracy of any information supplied by narrators of this project. All interviews have been edited and in places condensed.

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