These are the opening paragraphs of a statement issued a few days ago by Kelly King, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Truist Bank, acknowledging the institution’s ties to slavery. Truist was formed in December 2019 from the merger of banking giants SunTrust and BB&T. BB&T — Branch Banking and Trust — was born in Wilson in 1872.
The tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and too many others before them have caused our nation to come face-to-face with its history of systemic racism. The structural racial injustices that have been levied against African Americans were born from a terrible national legacy – slavery. We’ll never be able to adequately right the wrongs of the past, but it’s our obligation as leaders in the business community to publicly and passionately condemn these injustices with greater commitment, focus and energy.
This national discussion also has created a great deal of introspection here at Truist. As we work toward building a more equitable society, we must consider our own past and acknowledge the role our heritage companies played over 100 years ago to perpetuate the atrocity of slavery and the repression of enslaved people, leading to systemic disadvantages their descendants have endured for generations. This includes our early institutions, which had close ties to industries of that era that profited from slavery. We deeply regret and denounce these shameful aspects of our history, both known and unknown.
King’s gesture on behalf of Truist is nice one but, in focusing on the bank’s actions “over 100 years ago,” he stops short of laying bare and claiming ownership of the role BB&T played throughout the whole of the twentieth century in creating and supporting “systemic disadvantages” for African-Americans. In other words, profiting on the backs of black people and shutting them out of places and positions of power started with slavery, but did not end there.
Instead, the mea culpa moves on to back-patting:
While this acknowledgement of our early history is difficult, our organization has also demonstrated a sincere commitment through the years to affect positive change and stand for equity in the communities where we live and work.
Cue bullet points.
King’s memo is light on what he is actually apologizing for. BB&T corporate publication “Our account: A history of BB&T” — last updated in 2012 and in desperate need of a hard, new look — offers clues to the company’s official framing of its roots: “when hostilities ended in 1865 and the South was forced to accept defeat, the farmers-turned-soldiers returned home and found their property destroyed, livestock gone, tools and equipment either ruined or lost, and their money worthless.” “The world that they had left their homes to defend existed no longer. The world to which they returned was chaotic and was to remain so for several years.” “… [T]he state faced a broken economy with corruption in government, and when help seemed to come from no quarter, North Carolinians turned to each other for aid.” Into the breach of Radical Reconstruction, the story goes, stepped Alpheus Branch and Thomas J. Hadley, both Confederate veterans and the sons of wealthy former slaveowners.
You can read the rest of “Our Account” for yourself, but don’t expect to find anything in it about structural racism. Branch and Hadley lent money to struggling farmers and merchants in Wilson County. Able to borrow money at reasonable interest rates, farmers moved into the cash economy, planting cotton and, beginning in the 1880s, bright-leaf tobacco, a crop that would pour money into pockets across the county. An acknowledgment — beyond the performative — of the “shameful aspects” of BB&T’s history would require an admission that “farmers and merchants” did not include African-Americans, and an examination of the ways that BB&T served, or did not serve, this group embodied and perpetuated injustice. However, per the 3 July 2020 Charlotte Observer, Chairman “King said … a full inquiry of the bank’s past was unlikely.”
- Alpheus P. Branch (1843-1893) — Branch’s father Samuel W. Branch listed 38 enslaved African-Americans in the 1860 slave schedule of Halifax County, North Carolina. Branch fought for the Confederacy as a member of the Scotland Neck Mounted Riflemen, 3rd N.C. Cavalry. In 1865, Branch married Nannie Barnes, daughter of Joshua Barnes (who would become a charter member of an early iteration of BB&T.) Barnes is styled the “Father of Wilson County.” He was also a committed owner of one of the largest groups of enslaved African-Americans in Wilson County.
- Thomas J. Hadley (1838-1917) — Hadley’s father Thomas Hadley listed 37 enslaved African-Americans in the 1860 slave schedule of Wilson County. Hadley rose to captain in Company A, 55th N.C. Infantry.
Many thanks to Brian D. Dalton and Linda Clark Parks for bringing Truist’s statement to my attention.