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Black History Month: Carver Bank Has Become One Of Harlem's Greatest Success Stories

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- An African-American-operated bank in Harlem is not only a staple in the community, it puts its money where its mouth is.

The culinary scene is thriving in that part of northern Manhattan. Leah Abraham opened her restaurant 19 years ago. In 2001, more than 40% of the storefronts in Harlem were vacant.

"We were one of the few businesses that started here. It was a sprinkle here and there," Abraham told CBSN New York's Steve Overmyer recently. "Banks were not giving mortgages in the community. We couldn't have bought this building."

She works with Carver Federal Savings Bank, which was founded in the 1940s and named after famed scientist George Washington Carver. But the bank almost didn't happen.

"During that time it didn't matter if you had the means to bank with a financial institution. By the nature of the color of your skin you were limited in terms of your choices," Carver Bank President and CEO Michael T. Pugh said.

Carver Federal Savings Bank
Carver Federal Savings Bank (Photo: CBSN New York)

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In the years immediately following World War II, Harlemites were in need of home and business loans. The big banks weren't lending money to anyone in Harlem, so local business owners started their own bank. The problem was the state of New York wouldn't allow them to open.

"That same group of leaders experienced being rejected, but they didn't give up," Pugh said.

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The board of directors had to plead its case in Washington D.C. Eventually, federal approval was given.

"It was the beginning of a real paradigm shift for the community, because you now had people of color that had a choice," Pugh said. "They didn't have to keep their money in a cereal box or under a mattress. Having access to small business loans, thinking about ways to grow the business."

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More than 70 years later, Carver Bank is now the largest African American-operated bank in the United States.

"Taking that group of pioneers that saw a need and a real vision for helping a community, that's been the spirit of our mission 70 years later," Pugh said.

A mission still fulfilled, as 83 cents of every deposited dollar is reinvested in the community.

"I think it's a responsibility that we have to support the community," Abraham said.

"We continue to live out the mission of and dignify the history of Carver Federal Savings Bank. We have an opportunity to see the neighborhoods grow, businesses grow, and really the community remain strong," Pugh said.

It's a community that would've taken longer to develop if not for dreamers who took action.

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