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State and local officials gathered Thursday afternoon at a ceremony to unveil and dedicate a new state historical highway marker in honor of First State Bank, which for 98 years was one of the few banks in Virginia owned by African Americans.
The marker, issued by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, stands at the corner of North Union and Spring streets.
“The marker program offers a unique and visible way to inform and educate the public, said Michael Pulice, architectural historian for the Western Regional Office of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. “Our objective is to relay important stories about Virginia’s past and the landscape where they took place.”
Pulice said the application process is rigorous. Each marker topic must display regional, statewide or national significance. The information on the sign must be thoroughly documented.
“Each marker text must then be approved by the Virginia Board of Historic Resources. Given the high standards of the marker program, the dedication of this sign is certainly a reason for celebration.”
First State Bank opened its doors on Sept. 8, 1919, as The Savings Bank of Danville at 211 North Union St. When banks were allowed to reopen during the Great Depression, First State Bank was the first to open in the city. All banks were closed by Presidential Order on March 6, 1933. First State reopened on April 1, 1933, with a temporary insurance deposit of $5,000.
In 1953, the bank name became First State Bank.
Sylvesta Jennings, former CEO and chairman of the board of First State Bank and a bank employee for more than 40 years before retiring in 2001, said the bank’s mission was to serve the underserved people. In the early years of the bank, black people could not go to other banks and get the services they needed, he said.
“First State Bank has a rich and full heritage of serving the community – first serving the people of the community in which it was born to serve and, then as time passed, the entire community,” Jennings said.
Jennings also talked about the bank’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Bank directors and staff were jailed for doing so, he said.
“We are proud of our history and legacy in the community,” Jennings said. “We cherish the placement and dedication of this marker.”
First State Bank was purchased in 2017 and renamed Movement Bank.
David Rupp joined the bank on Jan. 1 as president.
“In that two months I have just begun to understand the powerful legacy of First State Bank,” Rupp said. “Also during that two months, I have learned about our wonderful bank team. They do such a great job of taking care of all of our customers in this community. We are looking forward to serving all of you for decades to come.”
Mayor Alonzo Jones thanked Movement Bank for sponsoring the marker.
He also thanked Paula Smith, who brought the idea for this marker to the City over a year ago. Smith is the daughter of M.C. Martin, who on Sept. 9, 1919, was made assistant cashier, and then on June 14, 1951, became bank president. Smith and her family worked with City staff to create the text of the marker.
Virginia’s historical highway marker program began in 1927 and is considered the oldest such program in the nation. Currently, there are more than 2,700 official state markers erected in Virginia to commemorate people, places, or events of regional, statewide, or national significance.
Text of the marker:
First State Bank
First State Bank, one of the few banks in Virginia owned by African Americans, opened on 8 Sept. 1919 as the Savings Bank of Danville. By issuing loans to individuals, businesses, and churches, the bank fostered the black community’s vitality during the era of segregation. Maceo Conrad Martin (1897-1981), an officer of the bank from 1919 to 1970, became its president in 1951 and was later president of the National Bankers Association. The only black member of a special seven-man grand jury called during Danville’s civil rights demonstrations of 1963, Martin issued a lone dissent against the indictments of protesters. First State Bank posted bond for nearly 20 jailed demonstrators.