Carver: A Community Development Financial Institution

Robert James, II
Robert James, II

Delivered August 26, 2016 in Jackson, MS at the “CDFI Banks in the Southeast: Embracing New Opportunities and Addressing Challenges” Forum. The forum was sponsored by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta, Community Development Bankers Association, National Bankers Association, and National Community Investment Fund.

Good morning. My name is Robert James, II, and I serve as the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Carver State Bank in Savannah, GA. Thanks to our hosts, the Art Fleming from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta and Donna Gambrell and Will Lambe from the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta for putting together what promises to be a stimulating discussion about how we can collaborate to improve our sector and lift up the communities we serve.

Thanks also to our friends Saurabh Narain from National Community Investment Fund, Jeannine Jacokes from the Community Development Bankers Association and one of my leaders, Michael Grant, President of the National Bankers Association, for their passionate advocacy on behalf of our sector.

I was asked to speak today about what it means to Carver State Bank to be a community development financial institution.

At its core, being a CDFI helps Carver continue in our mission to help our little corner of this great nation we call America achieve its aspirational goal of equality of opportunity.

To put that in context, let me tell you a little bit about the history of Carver State Bank. Carver was founded in 1927 by a gentleman named Louis B Toomer. Mr. Toomer originally established the bank to help provide affordable housing for working class black citizens of Savannah and the bank was converted into a state chartered bank in 1947.

Sometimes it’s easy to throw dates around and gloss over what life was like in certain times in our past. To place that in for the context, when Carver was founded, only 62 years had passed since the end of the Civil War. That means that there were undoubtedly quite a few people who lived in housing financed by the bank who had been born into slavery. When the bank was founded, the entire legal apparatus of Savannah and the state of Georgia was designed to deny fundamental rights to its customers on the basis of their race. When the bank was founded, the vast majority of its customers could only hold certain types of jobs, live in certain neighborhoods, or go to certain schools.

For me, the achievement of Louis B. Toomer and women and men like him across the country ranks with the achievements of JP Morgan, the Carnegie’s or the Rockefellers or any other great American business legends.

Speaking of legends, our third, and current President and CEO, my father, Robert E. James, was named to that position in 1971. He has dedicated his life to growing, protecting and preserving Carver so that it can continue to fulfill its mission. Among many prescient steps he has taken during his tenure, he had the foresight to apply for CDFI certification in 1999.

Today, our bank serves a community that, just like all of America, still carries the weight of its history, but is also striving to live up to our country’s highest ideals. Carver helps our customers achieve their piece of the American dream. We help our customers fund their small businesses, build and maintain their houses of worship, perform service in their communities, and purchase homes. We provide mainstream deposit services in neighborhoods other federally insured banks avoid. As much progress as has been made over the last 90 years, we still see that if not for Carver State Bank and the other institutions in this room, most of our customers would be relegated to the same kinds of high cost, predatory financial service providers that exist in every poor black, Hispanic, or white community across the country.

When you drive into any urban area in America regardless of size, you really don’t have to read a census bureau report or even know where you are on the map in order to know the make up of the neighborhood that you’re in. All you have to do is look at what kind of retail establishments exist in the neighborhood, See the kinds of financial services that are available to folks in the neighborhood, and you will know exactly who lives there. Over the weekend my dad and I have been driving all over Mississippi visiting his relatives when you drive into any town, you know which neighborhood you’re in by counting the check cashers, title pawn businesses and payday lenders.

We became a certified CDFI in 2000, and have been an enthusiastic supporter of and participant in various programs like the Bank Enterprise Award, CDFI Program, and New Markets Tax Credit Program. How does being a CDFI help Carver State Bank to help its customers achieve their piece of the American dream? • The resources we have been able to win have helped us be able to lend over $1.5 million dollars to Dasher Construction, a family-owned company that specializes in building affordable single-family homes in Savannah’s urban core. In partnership with a local CDC, the Neighborhood Improvement Association, we provide mortgage financing for the homebuyers. • We have been able to finance freightliners for Triple 7 Trucking, a small local, African American owned freight hauling company and provide mortgage financing for the owner’s home • Carver lent a young couple the capital they needed to purchase a Subway restaurant franchise • We financed renovations and scholarship expenses for a small local private school operated by one of our local church congregations.

As Carver moves into our next 90 years, our CDFI status affords us with a critical strategic advantage, and that advantage is the opportunity to collaborate with all of you. We listen to, and learn from, strategies you are employing in your communities to address persistent poverty and systemic lack of opportunity. By leveraging your energy, creativity and commitment, and applying the lessons we learn to our own community, we can achieve our goal of helping everyone that we serve have equal access to the American Dream.

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