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William Pettiford

Summary

William Reuben Pettiford
January 20, 1847 – September 20, 1914
Notable: Minister & Banker (Entrepreneur)
Nationality: American

Media

YouTube Video

Podcast Episode

Show Notes

William Reuben Pettiford was born on January 20, 1847, in Granville County, North Carolina. At a time when many Black people in the South were enslaved, his parents William and Matilda Pettiford were free. As a result, Pettiford was born free. His parents were also exceptional because while they supported themselves through farming like many other people of the time, they owned their land.

Pettiford helped his parents on the farm but was also privileged to receive reading lessons. When he was about 10 years old, Pettiford’s parents sold their farm and moved to Person County. In this new location, Pettiford received formal instruction from a private tutor.

In January of 1868, Pettiford turned 21 and converted to the Baptist faith on July 4th. A month later he was baptized in Salisbury by Rev. Ezekiel Horton and found work as a clerk at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church. The following July, Pettiford married Mary Jane Farley and the couple moved to Selma, Alabama. Pettiford supported his young family as a teacher and farmer but the marriage ended tragically when Mary died eight months after their wedding.

Pettiford resumed his education at the State Normal School in Marion. He spent most of the 1870s balancing attending school with teaching to cover his expenses. Pettiford married his second wife, Jennie Powell, in 1873 only to become a widower again in 1874. He spent some time as a principal in Uniontown but resigned in 1877.

Leaving his position as principal allowed Pettiford to fully dedicate his time and attention to his education. Pettiford began studying theology at the Selma Institute (now Selma University) from which he would receive a divinity degree. He had also remained active in his Baptist faith by attending and helping to lead prayer meetings and revivals. In 1879, Pettiford was licensed to preach by Marion’s baptist church and was also hired as a salaried teacher at the Selma Institute.

Pettiford married his third wife, Della Boyd, in November of 1880. The marriage produced three children. Around the time of his marriage, Pettiford was ordained and relocated to Union Springs where he served as pastor of the First Baptist Church and principal of the local Black school. Pettiford became acquainted with other Baptist leaders within Alabama as well as Booker T. Washington.

With encouragement from Washington and other leaders, Pettiford accepted what would become his most notable pastorate. The position was at the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham. When Pettiford joined the church in 1883 he became its fourth pastor in the decade since it was founded. The church was held in a store in a shabby part of town, had a congregation of 150 members, and was $500 in debt (a tidy sum in today’s money).

Under Pettiford’s guidance, the church was debt-free within a year and raised money for a building. The church was later re-named the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and Pettiford served as its pastor for 10 years. Pettiford assisted the sick and helped with burial expenses through the Christian Aid Society. He worked with other Black Birmingham leaders to push the city to create Industrial High School, Birmingham’s first public high school for Black students.

During segregation, most Black people were unable to open accounts at White-owned banks. In the 1880s, there were only two Black-owned banks in all of America. William Washington Browne was president of one of these Black-owned banks which operated out of Richmond, Virginia, and was considering opening a branch in Birmingham. Pettiford welcomed the idea of providing Birmingham’s Black community with a bank that would encourage saving and financial independence but not from someone from outside the community.

Pettiford joined forces with other Black leaders for a three-month campaign to raise awareness and funds for the Alabama Penny Savings company. On October 15, 1890, the bank opened with a teller accepting $555 in deposits at a folding table. On its second day of business, the bank made its first loan of $10 to be repaid within 30 days with 50 cents interest. It would take five years for the bank to acquire the $25,000 in cash assets required to incorporate in Alabama.

Sharing some ideological similarities with Booker T. Washington, Pettiford also collaborated with White bankers. He used his relationships with White financial institutions to learn and teach his workers bookkeeping and standard banking processes. A key partner was Steiner Brothers Bank which helped Alabama Penny Savings successfully navigate the 1893 economic crisis.

Alabama Penny Savings grew in tandem with the growth of Birmingham’s Black middle class. The bank launched in 1890 with $2,000 from the sale of stock and had $25,000 in assets by 1895. There was $78,000 held in deposits in July 1902, and deposits had grown to $421,000 in October 1911. This growth was in part a result of Pettiford’s belief in the importance of home ownership. Alabama Penny Savings allowed Black locals to not only save their money in a bank but also obtain mortgages making homeownership an attainable possibility. The bank replicated this model for its branches in Selma, Anniston, and Montgomery.

The bank also profited from organizing real estate transactions. Its newly constructed headquarters opened in 1913 on 18th Street in the business district. Even this building served as a way to circulate Black dollars within the community. The building had six floors but the bank only occupied some of the space. The rest of the building served as office space for other Black owned-businesses and professionals which generated $8000 in rent.

William R. Pettiford became ill in early 1914 and stepped down from leading the bank in April. His illness lasted about eight months, culminating in his death from heart failure on September 20, 1914. Pettiford’s funeral was held at the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Unfortunately, Pettiford’s influence was a gift and curse for Alabama Penny Savings. While the bank had thrived under his guidance for 25 years, it collapsed within a year after his death. Confidence in the bank declined after Pettiford’s death and its assets were sold off. Its investors were eventually repaid but many depositors lost their money.

Sources

  1. The Atlanta Constitution. 1914. “Leading Negro Banker Dies in Birmingham,” September 21, 1914. Farrow, Shayla. 2023. “Did You Know Alabama’s First Black Bank Owner, William Reuben Pettiford, Was Born on This Day?” TheHub.News. January 20, 2023. https://thehub.news/did-you-know-alabamas-first-black-bank-owner-william-reuben-pettiford-was-born-on-this-day/.
  2. Jones, Jae. 2021. “William R. Pettiford: Prominent Minister and Banker in Birmingham, Alabama.” Black Then. December 31, 2021. https://blackthen.com/william-r-pettiford-prominent-minister-and-banker-in-birmingham-alabama/.
  3. Kirkland, Scotty. 2022. “Retrospect: A Look at the History of the Alabama Penny Savings Bank.” Business Alabama. Business Alabama Magazine. March 1, 2022. https://businessalabama.com/retrospect-a-look-at-the-history-of-the-alabama-penny-savings-bank/.
  4. Pegues, A. W. 2013. “William R. Pettiford.” Fourth Generation Inclusive. April 16, 2013. https://ncfpc.net/2013/04/15/william-r-pettiford/.
  5. Sloan, Joanne. 2023. “Heroes of the Faith – Pastor, Educator and Philanthropist William Pettiford.” The Alabama Baptist. January 31, 2023. https://thealabamabaptist.org/heroes-of-the-faith-william-pettiford/.
  6. “William Pettiford, Minister, and Businessman Born.” 2022. African American Registry. October 9, 2022. https://aaregistry.org/story/william-pettiford-born/.
  7. “William Reuben Pettiford.” 2024. BlackUSA. May 5, 2024. https://blackusa.com/william-reuben-pettiford/.

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