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Prime Time Boomer: James Abernathy, city’s first Black banker and a Civil Rights leader

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James Abernathy and his wife, Yvonne Abernathy. Herald photo

By Kennedy Askew 

The Cincinnati Herald

James Abernathy is considered Cincinnati’s first African American banker, having worked at Fifth Third Bank from 1955 to 1980 and then at Hamilton State Bank.  

When Abernathy was in the 11th grade, a representative from Fifth Third Bank visited Woodward High School and “painted a flowery picture of banking,” as Abernathy said. After that, he decided he wanted to go into the world of banking.  

In the 1960s, there were still Jim Crow practices here, which meant that as a person of color, Abernathy could hold only one position at bank: messenger. He decided to take the position, as it was still something that he wanted to do. 

James Abernathy when he was 14. Photo provided

However, Abernathy could recall a specific incident that made him decide he needed something more than being just a messenger.  

One of his coworkers was receiving a reward from the president of Fifth Third. Harry Jordan was being rewarded with 50 roses for working for the bank for 50 years, knowing that he would never get a promotion.  

Discrimination prevented the messengers of Fifth Third Bank from doing many things, but the social isolation seemed to make Abernathy even more upset than the discriminatory practices.  

The young Abernathy confronted Fifth Third official about the issues that the messengers were facing in the company. The response was, “I didn’t know this was the situation here. I didn’t know that you couldn’t attend the company picnic. I didn’t know that you couldn’t join the company baseball team. I didn’t know that you couldn’t attend the Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners.” Abernathy said he responded, “Yes, you did. You did know; you just didn’t care. 

Abernathy said that in 1959, the State Fair Employment Plan made “everything change.” The State Fair Employment Plan made it possible for Abernathy and other messengers to attend the basic band functions that other employees could. 

However, this wasn’t enough for Abernathy. He wanted to be more than just a messenger. He decided he was going to go to the Federal Reserve and sign up to study the principles of banking. None of his fellow messengers wanted to join him.

Abernathy claimed that if the Federal Reserve didn’t let him sign up, “They’d have to kick me out.” Thankfully, Abernathy did sign up for classes on the principles of banking and was the first Black person to attend the American Student Banking Program.  

Abernathy graduated from Kent State University after being sent there by Fifth Third Bank and then went on to get a Commercial Banking Certificate from Ohio State University. His education in the banking business took about 10 years, he said. 

After he received his education, he applied for management trainee position. He wanted to become a banker in commercial lending or the trust department. He was told it wasn’t acceptable for African Americans to be handling money in those departments. 

Abernathy eventually was hired as assistant cashier at the Fifth Third Bank branch at Montgomery and Dana in Evanston, after there was rioting in that area and the bank began assigning Blacks to work there. He thus became the first Black banker in Cincinnati with that position. 

As Abernathy reminisced about the old job, he recalled that during his last three months there, there were two robberies. The first robbery was when he was napping in the basement of the bank when he was awakened by gunshots. He waited 20 minutes before climbing the stairs and seeing what all the commotion was about.  When he saw that it was a robbery, he was thankful to discover that no one was injured. The robbers were able to get in and out fairly quickly.

The second time, Abernathy was at the front desk when the robbers came in ski masks, armed with armed with ice picks and gunsOnce again, no one was killed or injured.  

Abernathy was at the Evanston bank from 1969 to 1980. He left his position there as he had started, as assistant cashier 

James Abernathy at the opening of Hamilton
State Bank at the Avondale Town Center. Photo provided

After his time at Fifth Third, he started at Hamilton State Bank as a vice president and ended up as the vice president of the bank when he left.  

After working at banks for so long, Abernathy decided that he wanted to work in stock and bonds, real estate, insurance and annuities. Currently, he is an annuities specialist and labor arbitrator. 

“Once you are discriminated against in the job market, it follows you around forever,” Abernathy said. “You can be denied raises; you can have less money in your Social Security check, which is what I’m experiencing now,” he said with a sad laugh.  

He explained that he started making $350 per month as a messenger and was able to make about $16,000 per year when he left from Fifth Third Bank in 1980.  

Abernathy was in a retirement program at Fifth Third Bank, which paid $160 per month. He said he could have also taken a lump sum payment of  $40,000 for his retirement. His financial bad luck followed him, even after working as a stockbroker for 10 years with Fidelity Investments, and receiving $95 per month in retirement income from his work there. 

A warm smile forms on Abernathy’s face as he looks at his wife and pats her hand, “I was married in 1973.”  

The Abernathys at their wedding in 1974 at Southern Baptist Church in
Avondale. Photo provided

Abernathy’s wife, Yvonne Abernathy, is an immigrant from Trinidad TobagoTrinidad Tobago is a dual-island Caribbean nation near Venezuela. 

She studied nursing in London and was sponsored at a hospital in Boston. Working in the United States, she decided to visit a relative in Cincinnati, where she met her husband. 

 She continued her work as a nurse here after they were married, but decided to become a stay-at-home mother after their children were born. She said she had not faced job discrimination in her native country, and it was just too much to deal with in this country. 

James Abernathy’s family. He is shown second from right, standing. Photo
was taken at the Abernathy home on Freeman Avenue in the West End. Photo provided

Both Mr. and Mrs. Abernathy said they valued having a stable home life and the opportunities to further their educations. For them, a stable home means a two-parent household, with involved parents who could help broaden the child’s world view.  

Mrs. Abernathy highly encourages travel and viewing different cultures other than your own, and Mr. Abernathy encourages people to be determined and work for the things that they desire. The Abernathys even fostered children to help give children in Hamilton County a stable home, even if it was only for a few months or so.  

Abernathy chaired the Cincinnati NAACP Labor and Industry Committee for 15 years. It fought racial discrimination in employment and worked to open up jobs to African Americans. He was founder of the African American Culture Society that worked closely witUniversity of Cincinnati and Xavier students who came in from Africa.

He was founder of the Third World Forum in conjunction with UC and Xavierwhich invited ambassadors from Africa and South America to give presentations in Cincinnati. He served as a board member for the Center for Peach Education in Cincinnati, which worked the school systems to teach students and teachers about bullying. He chairethe Africa Focus Project, sponsored by the United Nations and the International YMCA, which was a nongovernmental program of the UN.

He was founder of the Cincinnati/Harare Sister City Programserved of the board of the Sickle Cell/Anemia Program in Cincinnati for a number of years and was a fellow at the UC Department of African American Studies under the supervision of Dr. Francis Botchway. He was responsible for the discovery of a plaintiff in the local NAACP’s Anderson Dobbins racial discrimination case against Local 212 IBEW, which became a landmark Civil Rights decision adjudicated by Judge Timothy Hogan in federal court. 

The Abernathys at the wedding of their daughter, Medinah Hagan-Morgan, in Tema, Ghana. Photo provided

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