Liberty Bank was the first primarily Black-owned bank west of the Mississippi River. The bank opened on May 31, 1968, at 24th Avenue and East Union Street in the heart of Seattle’s Central District. Founded as a community response to redlining and disinvestment in Central Seattle, the bank provided essential services to people and businesses who were otherwise unable to obtain them.
The vision for Liberty Bank was born from a dream at the Black-owned Sentinel Credit Union, which was founded by members of the Masonic Prince Hall Grand Lodge (a Masonic Order for Blacks) who could not give mortgages or loans. Eight Black leaders including Rev. Samuel McKinney, James and Mardine Parnell, and Holbrook Garrett pooled resources with Japanese and Jewish Central Area business owners George Tokuda and Jack Richlen to apply for a state charter to open Liberty Bank.
For 20 years, the bank functioned as a community-based institution with 518 stockholders. Eighty percent were Blacks of modest means. Sadly, Liberty Bank closed in 1988 due to deficits and reopened as Emerald City Bank, eventually bought by KeyBank. In 2015, KeyBank began discussions with Capitol Hill Housing to sell the Liberty Bank site below market value with the intention that the property become affordable housing, in order to meet the community’s critical need and to honor the history of Liberty Bank. Capitol Hill Housing (CHH) purchased the bank property in 2015 and pledged to uphold the legacy of Liberty Bank as they moved forward with a development that would provide affordable housing to 115 families.
Concerns were expressed within the Black community about the demolition of Liberty Bank, though a nomination to the City Landmarks Preservation Board to designate the building as a city landmark ultimately failed. The concerns were heard at CHH, who partnered with Africatown Central District, Byrd Barr Place, and the Black Community Impact Alliance and established among the partners a memorandum of agreement which focused on strengthening black businesses, reducing housing displacement, and designing a building reminiscent of Liberty Bank. The unique memorandum gives Byrd Barr Place the right of first offer and first right of refusal to acquire the Liberty Bank Building after 15 years, so that a Black community-based organization can own the building.
The Liberty Bank Building opened in 2018 and is a tribute to community organizing and collaboration.