By Elizabeth Miller, Freedman’s Bank Intern

It was my first day on the job. I walked into the office and was immediately greeted with a warm “Welcome to the HOPE family!” from my supervisor, Jena Roscoe. In a rush of excitement, she swept me back out the door into the sweltering D.C. humidity to take a comprehensive tour of the White House complex. As we walked the grounds, it dawned on me that despite the number of times I stood in front of the residence our nation’s leader for pictures, I never bothered to explore what historic treasures may lie just beyond its borders.  This realization led me to my first major takeaway as a Freedman’s Bank intern —appreciate the power of proximity.

My introduction to the Freedman’s Bank taught me that the proximity of the Bank to the White House was no sheer coincidence. Just a few months before the end of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Freedman’s Bank into existence. President Lincoln knew that providing financial literacy to the nearly 4 million newly freed slaves was critical to ensuring their true and lasting freedom. This truth echoed repeatedly throughout the rest of my experiences with Operation HOPE: personal freedom is inescapably linked with personal finance.

During my internship, I was charged with reviewing the background of the White House Historical Association and studying Chairman John Hope Bryant’s books, including Banking On Our Future, How the Poor Can Save Capitalism, and Love Leadership. These sources proved to be not only critical in building a strong understanding of the purpose of Freedman’s Bank, but its legacy as well. The Bank’s ultimate closure created a rift in progress for the unbanked and underserved which still exists today. This idea is part of the basis of Chairman Bryant’s newest book, The Memo: Five Rules for Your Economic Liberation.

I had the opportunity to explore the living reality of the Freedman’s Bank legacy as I visited the home of Frederick Douglass, a leading pioneer in America’s silver rights movement. Douglass, widely known for his work as a writer and abolitionist, made another legacy for himself as the director for the Freedman’s Savings Bank in the 1870s. When the Bank began to fail, Douglass invested $10,000 of his personal savings into the project because he believed in the necessity of financial inclusion and the institution’s mission. Despite Douglass’ attempts at saving the bank, it ultimately met its demise in June 1874. However, the bank’s vision of financial inclusion for all lives on through Operation HOPE.

Frederick Douglass’ Washington D.C. home is located across a river in the 8th Ward in the city of Anacostia. This area is houses to the majority of D.C.’s population and is home to the city’s most economically impoverished. The home of the very man who donated what equates to millions of dollars towards financial literacy is now situated in midst of a community that is desperate need of financial stability.

Visiting the Frederick Douglass home in this ironic context showed me that there is still work to be done surrounding financial equity. Operation HOPE plays an essential role in continuing the Freedman’s Bank legacy in spreading and improving financial literacy to communities across the country.  That same day, I spent time in the Operation HOPE Anacostia office where I had the opportunity to volunteer and teach financial literacy to the local women. A lot of great things are happening in the community because of their work and it’s no surprise the base of operations is in close proximity to Douglass’ home.

As the Freedman’s Savings Bank intern, I have not only learned the history of an important part of America’s financial fabric, but have been able to see the day-to-day effects of the legacy the Freedman’s Bank left behind. Working for Operation HOPE has allowed me to contribute to this legacy and work towards a more financially literate public. My experience as the Freedman’s Bank intern has provided me with invaluable insight to the true necessity of financial literacy for all Americans.

The mission of the Operation HOPE’s Fellows, Interns and Loaned Executives (FILE) program is to educate and empower the next generation of silver rights leaders, as we work to increase financial inclusion. Apply to become a fellow or intern.