THE RISE AND FALL OF JESSE BINGA
By Michael Theobald
Outside of politics and policy, few figures in Bronzeville loomed as large as Jesse Binga. Born in Detroit in 1865, the son of a runaway slave, Binga learned his father’s trade of barbering and spent time working in a lawyer’s office, picking up some education in the law. Binga’s mother owned property around Detroit, and Jesse helped collect rents for her, learning the real estate business.
In the 1880s, Binga moved to the Pacific Northwest, working as a barber and making some money in real estate speculation. Arriving in Chicago in 1893, Binga began buying up run-down buildings, fixing them up and renting them to black tenants.
“I could do the repair work myself,” he told a reporter. “I could do everything from digging a posthole to topping a chimney. I knew. Many a night I’ve worked all night on boilers and plumbing, and wiping joints, and mending stairs, and hanging paper. I knew materials and I knew when work was right…”
“My greatest asset in business — I won’t say that it was altogether my integrity. It was partly the disposition of the average white man to underestimate my knowledge of real estate values. They wouldn’t believe that a colored man could take almost any old building and whip it into shape.”
Within fifteen years he was one of the richest African Americans in the city, and in 1908 he started his own bank.
In 1910, he married the daughter of the “Richest Negro in Chicago,” policy kingpin Mushmouth Johnson, and in 1917, he bought a mansion in the Washington Park neighborhood. It was an all-white neighborhood at that time, and when racial tensions heightened in 1919, the house was bombed on seven separate occasions. Each time he refused offers from whites to buy him out and rebuilt the house. He hired round-the-clock guards and offered a $1000 reward for the bombers, but no one was ever arrested.
The Binga Bank became a major financial player in Chicago, competing with the white banks. He joined the Chicago Clearing House, an association of bankers created to help support each other in times of trouble.
He was revered in the community, and his bank loaned money that allowed blacks to buy homes and start businesses. As a landlord, he provided places for tens of thousands to live. He wrote a column for the Chicago Defender and published a booklet of his sayings and thoughts on how to be successful.
When the Great Depression hit, Binga’s bank was in trouble. Depositors began pulling out their money, and people who had lost their jobs couldn’t repay their loans. Binga tried to keep it afloat with his own money, but that soon ran out. He appealed to the Chicago Clearing House, but they refused to help. Many had problems of their own, and others saw a way to get rid of a troublesome competitor. In 1930, regulators closed the Binga Bank, one of hundreds of Illinois banks to collapse in the Depression. But the Binga Bank’s failure hurt more. Not only did his mostly black depositors lose their savings, but he had also been an icon of the community, a hero whose success was held up as an example.
Binga’s problems weren’t over, though. Auditors found sloppy accounting and accused Binga of embezzlement, even though he had lost all his money trying to save the bank. After a first trial ended in a mistrial, a second prosecution convicted Binga and he was sentenced to 1-10 years in Joliet. In 1935, at age 70, he entered prison to begin his sentence.
But the people of Bronzeville hadn’t forgotten Jesse Binga, and when he came up for parole in 1938, ten thousand people, including many who had lost money to Binga’s Bank, signed a petition asking for him to be freed. Broke, his health shattered, Binga walked out of prison that February.
He took a job as a church janitor, but still lived in the house in Washington Park, which he had managed to save. In 1941 he was pardoned by the Governor of Illinois. His health failing, Binga moved out of the house he’d refused to leave through bombings and threats to stay with a nephew. He died in 1950, at age 85, still revered in Bronzeville.