Credit unions an example of Durham’s grassroots financial leadership

The following article is by Katie Spencer, executive director for the Museum of Durham History. It first appeared in a monthly column in The News and Observer and in the Triangle Downtowner. The column features essays on Durham History by members of the MoDH’s
staff and History Advisory Committee. The exhibit, “Durham A-Z: C is for Credit Unions” is on display until October 5, 2014 at the History Hub.


Not long after the History Hub opened in the fall of 2013, Durhamite Phillip Evans came in to take a look around and noticed our first Durham A-Z exhibit.

“A is for Advertising” covered the creative marketing that followed James B. Duke’s innovative mass production of cigarettes. We were already working on B is for Brick, which covered the history of Durham’s iconic bricks and the people who made them.

Phil asked about the letter C. Would it be for Credit Unions, perhaps?

We were considering lots of options: Cotton Mills, Cigarettes, even Coney Island of the South, the title once given to the Lakewood Amusement Park. We hadn’t really considered credit unions, but promised to look into it. It turned out to be a fascinating topic, full of the kinds of stories that make Durham special. Thank you, Phil!

Here’s a sample of what we learned: Durham had the first credit union in the South. Surprised?

We can look to the small but enterprising farming community of Lowe’s Grove for that financial first. Farmers faced an annual dilemma. They were paid just once a year, at harvest time but had no access to credit, except at exorbitant rates, to tide them over from ye
ar to year. The new cooperative model of a credit union allowed members to pool their money and borrow from themselves at reasonable rates.

In 1915, farmers at Lowe’s Grove partnered with Durham banker and philanthropist John Sprunt Hill, who had studied financial cooperatives internationally and advocated for them throughout North Carolina. Soon a new institution took shape. Founding members put in $29, and in January 1916 the Lowe’s Grove Credit Union opened.

This need for credit was not limited to farmers. In the Jim Crow South, African Americans were often unable to obtain fair rates on loans, and credit unions were one solution. At one point, North Carolina had more black credit unions than the rest of the United States combined.

More recently, Durham’s Latino community, which almost quadrupled from 1990 to 2000, found it difficult to access financial institutions. As a result, most transactions were carried out in cash, and the possession of large sums too often invited robbery and violence.

Once again, a banking need was met by a credit union. Durham’s Latino Credit Union opened in 2000 and grew to 50,000 members and $100 million in assets by 2010. It has become an international model for credit unions serving immigrant populations.

Self-Help Credit Union, which started in 1984 with $77 from a bake sale, is another Durham credit union making a national impact. Over the past three decades, Self-Help has become a leader in community development and lending to low-income borrowers. It has provided more than $6.4 billion to 87,000 families, individuals and organizations across the United States.

People care about and take pride in their credit unions, perhaps none more than the church members who manage Durham’s Mount Vernon Baptist Church Credit Union. Founded in 1948, Mount Vernon is the smallest credit union in North Carolina and one of the smallest in the country. It is also the only black-owned and operated church credit union in North Carolina. The small loans made by Mount Vernon CU are funding cars, houses and college tuition, quietly making possible the stuff of life for their community.

“C is for Credit Union” is the newest exhibit at the History Hub and will be on view until October 5. Special thanks to Jean and Jim Blaine, Duke Credit Union, Local Government Federal Employees Credit Union, Greater Piedmont Credit Union, and Self-Help for making the exhibit possible. Please stop by. And if you have an exhibit idea for coming alphabet letters, by all means drop us a line at

Katie Spencer is the executive director of the Museum of Durham History.

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