OneUnited Bank said it wanted to celebrate Black history. Instead it drew widespread scorn.
The bank, which was established in Dudley Square and is now the largest Black-owned bank in the country, announced on Wednesday that it was releasing a special-issue Harriet Tubman Visa card to celebrate Black History Month and support the now-stalled effort to put the image of the 19th-century abolitionist and Underground Railroad conductor on the $20 bill.
But the image depicted on the card — Tubman’s arms are crossed and her hands are clenched in fists — struck many as odd and a little too similar to the Wakanda Forever salute used by characters in the “Black Panther” film. Critics panned the decision on several other fronts: They said it pandered to the Black community, commodified Tubman’s legacy, and disrespected Tubman’s self-identification as an anticapitalist.
The bank responded quickly online, saying the image was taken from the painting “The Conqueror” by the Miami-based Black artist Addonis Parker.
And the gesture? “It’s the symbol for love in American Sign Language,” bank spokeswoman Suzan McDowell said in a brief interview.
OneUnited has had a complicated history with Boston’s Black communities. Its chief executive officer, Kevin Cohee, was a long divisive figure in the city’s banking circles, particularly when the bank foreclosed on the Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church after it failed to repay its loan. The bank has also failed to repay the TARP funding that it received from the federal government after the Great Recession.
Cohee’s wife, Teri Williams, the bank’s president, has been the face of the company for the last few years, as Cohee has spent more time on the West Coast. She said the Tubman debit cards were released as part of OneUnited’s #BankBlack Challenge, which encourages Black Americans to move their money to Black-owned banks as a way to address the economic opportunity gap.
“This is really about empowerment, and the reality is that money is power,” she said. “As a community, we spend $1.3 trillion, and so we need to recognize that we have huge economic power, and we need to use that to build wealth.”
Williams said that since launching the campaign in 2016, the bank’s customer base has doubled. FDIC filings, however, show that deposits increased by $29 million — from $353 million to $382 million — between the years 2014 and 2019. And its three Boston-based branches cleared only $25 million in deposits in 2019.
“Most bankers would consider a single branch with $25 million in deposits to be unprofitable — the average is $45 to $50 million,” said longtime local banking consultant Suzanne Moot. “If three branches are seeing only $25 million in deposits, it’s astounding.”
Despite the negative press, Williams said, the Tubman card has been extremely popular with customers.
“We wanted to celebrate Harriet Tubman’s legacy," she said. "When it was postponed that she would be on the $20 bill, we decided we would step in and do this ourselves. . . . We have customers who are coming in and changing their card to this other card. They’re giddy that we have this.”
In a phone call on Friday, Parker, the artist, said he first collaborated with OneUnited in 2015 on a mural project in Miami, and then began working with the bank to put his paintings of Black heroes on its debit cards. He has produced eight so far, but none are iconic historic figures like Tubman. He had the idea for the Tubman card in 2016 after hearing that the US Mint had approved plans to put her image on the $20 bill.
He told the Globe he made the original 3-by-4-foot painting of the abolitionist with her arms crossed because he wanted her to project both love and strength. (He later moved Tubman’s arms closer to her face, so the image fit the debit card, he said.)
“I wanted her to look powerful,” Parker said. “All the pictures we have of Harriet, she’s not smiling. But I know she smiled, she laughed, and she cried.”
Parker said he completed the painting in 2016 — before the 2018 release of the Marvel Studios film “Black Panther.” The Wakanda Forever salute wasn’t on his mind, he said, but he did point out a connection. The film’s director, Ryan Coogler, has said the signs for “love” and “hug” helped inspire the salute, in addition to Egyptian pharaohs and sculptures from West Africa.
“If we were talking about Frederick Douglass, I would probably have him flexing like Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Parker said. “That’s how I view my heroes.”
If Harriet Tubman were here today, he added, “she and I would be taking a selfie.”
Ya'll have...*checks pic* THE HARRIET TUBMAN....doing the.... *check pic again * Wakanda forever pose?!?!?— LaBlaq, a birthday babe on 2/24 🎂🎉🎆 (@LoveAndShalom) February 14, 2020
The DISRESPECT. Do you know who she is?!?!?
RIP to your mentions because Black Twitter will not have it-oh. https://t.co/FSu31vjWch