By TOM GODFREY
The entrepreneur son of a Windsor barber who started the first Black-owned bank that made him one of the richest men in the U.S. until he lost his fortune in the Great Depression is being remembered this Black History Month.
Jesse Binga, who was born in 1865 in Detroit, was the son of William W. Binga, a native of Windsor, and grandson of Rev. Anthony Binga Sr. of Amherstburg, a prominent Baptist Church leader in Western Ontario who helped fugitive slaves.
Binga worked as a barber and Pullman porter in Seattle and California before settling in Chicago.
A shrewd businessman, he began purchasing rundown buildings, repairing and renting them to Blacks who were pouring into Chicago during what was called the “The Great Migration”.
He would purchase property from Whites who wanted to move from areas due to Blacks moving in and then fix and rent or resell the properties to new arrivals.
Binga married Canadian-born Eudora Johnson whose family was well off and she owned properties in Rochester and Detroit.
He opened the Binga State Bank in 1921 with deposits of over $200,000. Within three years the bank had deposits of over $1.3 million, according to reports.
The bank provided Chicago’s Black community a choice other than relying on White-owned banks, that often discriminated and with predatory lenders who tried to entrap working class Blacks wanting to buy homes or create businesses.
The bank employed a number of Blacks in rare, well-compensated white-collar jobs and created a sense of pride and achievement in the community.
Binga by then owned a number of South Side Chicago properties and had become one of the city’s leading philanthropists.
His bank had a policy of treating all Blacks the same as Whites were being treated at White-owned banks.
Business was booming and the banker in 1929 opened the Binga Arcade, a fancy five-storey complex that contained offices, stores and even a dance floor.
Binga was then listed as one of the wealthiest men in the U.S., records show.
He and his family moved from the old neighbourhood into a large home in an all-White area of Chicago. The home was fire bombed five times by White neighbours who wanted the family to move, according to reports.
In 1929 the Great Depression hit and Binga was forced to close the bank. By 1930 he had lost his fortune. The assets of the bank were too heavily invested in mortgage loans to Black churches and fraternal societies, many of which could not meet their payments.
Bank examiners claimed Binga State Bank was operated illegally and in 1933 he was convicted of embezzling $22,000 from bank funds and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
He was released after three years due to protests and petitions from leading community members.
Binga was given a $15 a week job working as a handyman and usher at St. Anselm’s Church in Chicago, where one of the wealthiest Black entrepreneur at the time died a pauper in 1950 at the age of 65.
Binga’s wife and children eventually returned to Canada and settled in the Chatham area.