A brief history of Washington state's first black-owned bank located in the Central District in Seattle.

Share story

Washington’s first black-owned bank, Liberty Bank, opened May 31, 1968, at 24th Avenue and East Union Street in Seattle’s Central District, aimed at giving minorities, especially African-Americans, an equal footing in the economy.

Five days before the bank opened, Gov. Dan Evans led a ribbon-cutting ceremony, which was followed by an open house.

Joel Gould was the first manager and president of the bank; its 10 founders included James C. Purnell, Carolyn Purnell and Rev. Dr. Samuel McKinney, according to James Purnell’s 2005 obituary.

In May of 1968, Seattle Daily Times Associate Editor Herb Robinson wrote about the bank as a rarity, saying it was one of the only multiracial banks “north of Los Angeles and one of the few west of the Mississippi.” It had 513 stockholders, many being “persons of only modest means.”

Robinson commented: “While the new bank is indeed a dollars-and-cents undertaking, there can be no doubt that its existence will be a useful psychological factor in building the ‘image’ of the central area, whose residents have encountered their share of obstacles in past financial transactions outside the district.”

By August of that year, Gould said that 1,784 checking accounts and 1,064 savings accounts had been opened, The Times wrote. The brief mentioned that 80 percent of the stock holders in the bank at the time were black.

The bank’s profits were uneven for years in the mid- to late ’80s, which lead to its eventual closure.

Regulators closed the bank in 1988 and opened a new one in its place called Emerald City Bank, which was eventually bought by Key Bank.

Despite the bank’s economic legacy in the black community, in March 2014 the City of Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board board did not designate the building as a protected Seattle landmark.

On March 17, 2015, Capitol Hill Housing announced that affordable housing would be built on the site, with a recommendation from the Liberty Bank Advisory Board that it be named after the bank and “feature multiple historical elements in the exterior design.” Some examples offered included using the old Liberty Bank logo, echoing the brick exterior on the new structure, and repurposing the bank vault door and safe-deopsit box number plates.

On Oct. 23, 2015, the Capitol Hill Blog reported that the former Liberty Bank’s building was demolished, with construction to begin mid-2017.