A visit to a local bank can feel transactional. Deposit. Withdraw. Invest. One Nashville bank, however, has a storied history that’s cherished across North Nashville.
One of our Curious Nashville readers contacted us after hearing that Citizens Savings Bank and Trust “is the oldest, continuously running Black bank in the nation … I’d love to learn more.” And it’s here in our backyard.
Nestled in the heart of North Nashville near Meharry Medical College, and a stone’s throw from Fisk University and Tennessee State University, is the storied Citizens Savings Bank and Trust. Founded in 1904 as the One Cents Savings Bank — and renamed in 1920 — its origin stems from 16 local businessmen and community leaders who shared a vision to provide fair and adequate financial services to the under-served African-American community.
One descendent of founder Taylor Ewing is local historian and retired Nashville attorney David Ewing, who says the bank’s founding carried the “symbolism of prosperity, hope and an investment of putting money into the community.” He suggests it’s likely the longest-running business on the Jefferson Street corridor.
“When the bank first opened as One Cents Savings Bank, it saw success because of the growing African American community and because none of the local banks in the area would service the Black community,” Ewing says.
“Even if other banks had Black customers, they still did not have the same access to capital. Oftentimes, Citizens Bank provided capital to its customers who could not receive capital elsewhere.”
Today, Citizens is a full commercial bank and still remains a go-to for residents and businesses in North Nashville, as well as many area churches. In fact, churches make up a large percentage of its clientele.
“In earlier years, many banks were unsure of how to handle church lending. One of the earlier [growth] strategies was to begin soliciting business from churches with the goal of reaching consumers and small business owners within the church,” said Corey Hammonds, chief credit officer for the bank. “That has been a successful strategy, and through this, Citizens has become an expert in church finance and church lending and is still probably one of the largest church lenders in the U.S. today.”
Adapting to change
Since 2018, the bank has been led by Sergio Ora, who came out of retirement after four decades of financial services industry experience. His first order of business: immediately assess the bank’s assets and other resources.
A 2018 report indicated Citizens Bank charged off more than $1 million in loans and experienced a net loss of $3 million in 2017. The latest figures by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) list the bank with nearly $100 million in assets. By comparison, some newer banks such as Studio Bank, founded June 2018, have assets listed over $250 million.
“We’ve maintained our base as far as asset growth. Now, we’re in a better position to increase our asset size by bringing in deposits and loans. Our focus is to keep the bank stabilized and in good standing, but we have to be very methodical in how we do it,” says Anne Sams, chief financial officer.
Striking the right balance is a priority. The century-old bank wants to foster its long-term relationships while changing some practices to meet the city’s growth.
“The history and legacy of this bank is something to be proud of and something to cherish, but if we want to continue to grow and serve this community and help our constituencies … achieve some financial independence and success, we really need to transform ourselves as a bank,” Ora says.
Operationally, Citizens Bank says it’s heading in a direction comparable to its peers. But the focus and heart of the bank will always rest with its customers.
“Our primary base has always been small businesses, church groups, and the African American community. And that will never change,” Hammonds says. “However, we’re beginning to see a new group of supporters.”
With a new strategic plan in place, the bank intends to reintroduce itself to the community. New financial product offerings, a new telephone banking platform and other initiatives are in the works.
“Part of our strategic plan includes raising capital, recruiting new talent and developing a wealth management division,” Hammonds says. “We are working very hard to develop a foundation for Citizens Savings Bank in a more technological and digital environment. This is an important mission for us to achieve and, within the next 12 to 24 months, look to become more successful as we move in that direction.”