As Prepared for Delivery
WASHINGTON - Thank you, Ambassador Young for that kind introduction. Good afternoon, everyone.
It is a pleasure to welcome all of you to the Treasury Department. On your way to today’s ceremony, I am sure many of you were reminded of the incredible history that lives forever in this neighborhood. While our neighbor to the west gets much of the attention, Lafayette Square has a rich history of its own—it has hosted historic protests and parades, been home to famous Washingtonians, and housed many government buildings, including the Treasury Department.
Today, we’re going to shine a light on an important chapter of this neighborhood’s history and a story that deserves to be better known.
But before we do, I would like to thank Alden McDonald and Ambassador Young for their wise words; Assistant Secretary Fontenot and all the Treasury staff for their work on this important initiative; Reverend C.T. Vivian, Marc Morial, Comptroller Curry;, and all of you for joining us and for your dedication to the important issues we will discuss today.
I also want to thank John Hope Bryant, the Chairman and CEO of Operation HOPE and a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability for Young Americans, for helping make this day possible and for the outstanding work he does on financial inclusion. It was less than a year ago that John suggested to me that we rename the Annex, and I want recognize him as this idea becomes a reality.
As we have heard today, the history of the Freedman’s Bank began more than 150 years ago, when Congress passed—and President Abraham Lincoln signed—a law to create the Freedman’s Savings and Trust. The Freedman’s Bank was established to help newly emancipated African Americans build wealth by providing a safe place to bank and save their new earnings. And its headquarters were once located where the Treasury Annex now stands. Today, to commemorate that legacy and renew our commitment to the promise of financial inclusion and the opportunity for a better life, we are naming the Treasury Department’s Annex the Freedman’s Bank Building.
In the early years of its existence, the Freedman’s Savings and Trust functioned well. Within nine years of its founding, the bank had 100,000 customers. While it was originally created for African American Civil War soldiers, most of the account holders were low-wage earners—laborers, cooks, and custodians…nurses, barbers, and blacksmiths—and institutions like churches, and Howard University.
Today, as we commemorate the promise of the Freedman’s Bank, we also must remember the complicated legacy and continuing challenge of Americans struggling to reach financial security. The Freedman’s Bank had a disappointing end. Due in part to insufficient oversight and regulation, risky investments, and a broad financial panic, the bank struggled and then failed in 1874. Sadly, most of the savings in the bank were lost.
But nonetheless, the Freedman’s Bank remains a significant part of American history. It symbolized the hopes for equality and the aspirations of African-Americans to be fully integrated into our nation’s economic life. The bank represented the federal government’s commitment to helping make financial inclusion a reality, a challenge we continue to face today, and a commitment we need to renew.
Far too many are excluded today. Many Americans, especially low-income and minority families have little or no access to the financial system. Without a credit or banking history, it can be difficult, if not impossible to qualify for the most basic access to a home mortgage or small business loan. Without access to the financial system it is almost impossible to build the savings and investments that are essential to a secure financial future. And without a financial education, many do not even understand the tools that they need to use to build this future.
Under President Obama’s leadership, the Administration has worked to address these issues. As the President has said, if you’re willing to work hard and play by the rules, you should be able to find a good job, feel secure in your community, and support a family. To help move people toward a brighter, more secure future; we need to better connect individuals and enterprises to our robust financial system in fair and appropriate ways.
Here at Treasury, we are intensifying our efforts to improve financial inclusion.
We continue to work with our partners across government through the Financial Literacy and Education Commission, to make sure all Americans―and especially our young people―have the knowledge, skills, and tools they need to make informed financial choices.
In December, we held a dynamic forum with government and private partners that served as a platform to announce private sector commitments and Treasury initiatives to expand financial inclusion. These include investing in public goods like our payments infrastructure, providing seed funding to entrepreneurs to identify breakthrough ideas that will help reduce financial exclusion, and leveraging new technologies to drive down the cost of serving low-income customers. In addition, we are working to expand the availability of financial services and access to credit in under-served communities through the programs of the Community Development Financial Institutions Fund.
Today, we just held a productive roundtable to advance our work even more. And in the weeks and months ahead, as we work with our partners across the executive branch, on Capitol Hill, and in the private sector to improve financial inclusion, we will continue to take additional steps as we make sure that we implement the commitments already made.
Naming the Freedman’s Bank Building today represents that promise. As we honor the legacy of the Freedman’s Bank, it reminds us of the need for effective regulation and oversight, and symbolizes our commitment to ensuring more Americans have the financial tools and education they need to build a secure future.
While it is a little cold today, I am sure that even right now visitors to Washington are walking up and down Pennsylvania Avenue. From this day on, families and students from around our nation and from all over the world will see a sign telling them that they are looking at the Freedman’s Bank Building. When they see it, many will be inspired to pick up their smart phones to research Freedman’s Bank and learn about its history. And I hope they take a moment to contemplate what it meant for freed men and women to have a bank at all, and what it means for Americans from every community to feel fully part of our country with the tools to build their own future.