Stronger Houston: Harris County partners with Black-owned bank for first relationship of its kind

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Houston – They are rejoicing in Harris County with historic news to tell. An institution that has been a major support to churches like Wheeler Avenue Baptist, restaurants, barber shops, and other businesses over seven decades is celebrating another milestone -- a first of its kind partnership.

Unity National Bank -- the only Black-owned bank in the entire state of Texas -- has been in the Third Ward since 1963 -- originally as Riverside Bank. Just last month, Harris County invested $5 milllion in Unity. It marks the first time a Texas county has partnered with a minority-owned bank for services. Ever.

Michael Pearson is Unity’s president.

“We can take that $5 million and turn it around and fund loans for our consumers and for our business customers,” Pearson said.

The partnership essentially means Unity will have more money to do what banks do: provide auto loans, business financing and funds for real estate acquisitions. The county’s investment largely was spearheaded by Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

“This is a start,” Ellis said. “It’s not an ending.”

Ellis said with a societal emphasis currently on equity and inclusion -- he believed it was time to invest in Unity, the way the bank has invested in the surrounding community.

“It was really something we wanted to do,” said Ellis. “To reach out and find ways to try and help this institution thrive and survive.”

Thriving and surviving is something Unity has aided businesses and other institutions in Houston’s brown and Black communities in doing for nearly six decades. In addition to Wheeler Avenue Baptist -- a large number of Black churches and ministries have been able to obtain loans from Unity when no other bank would work with them. That includes St. John’s United Methodist Church downtown.

“Access to capital has always been a challenge for institutions of color,” said Rudy Rasmus, pastor at St. John’s.

Rasmus said the relationship between Unity and its customers has largely boiled down to two things: familiarity and respect.

“It’s important to have an institution in the community who, first of all, knows who you are. knows your history,” Rasmus said. “Knows that you didn’t just show up but you’ve been here and can trust you with their money.”

With this new partnership, Unity is not only hoping other entities will make an investment in the institution -- they’re looking forward to it.

“We believe and we expect that there’ll be others that will come and visit with us,” Pearson said. “Understand who we are, understand our mission, and will say, ‘You know what? We can support that.’”

How does the county benefit from this partnership with Unity? Its $5 million dollar investment is in the form of two CDs -- one for two years and the other for three. They will be able to earn interest on those returns and all funds are insured by the FDIC.

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