By Michelle Antico, Marketing Coordinator
As we continue our Black History Month theme of recognizing African American individuals who have significantly impacted the accounting and business fields, we want to highlight the influential William Washington Browne.
Nothing ever came easy for Browne; he was born into slavery from inheriting his parents’ unfortunate fate and relocated to a plantation near Memphis, Tennessee, after being sold to a horse trader at age eight. Browne escaped from bondage in 1862 after the United States Army inhabited Memphis. He served on a Union gunboat and worked in the infantry. After being discharged in 1866, Browne attended school in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, before returning to the South to teach in 1869. His completed education won him immediate respect in the Black community. While teaching, he met the lovely Mary A. Graham in Alabama, and they were married on August 16, 1873.
Browne was determined to see African American individuals thrive in the post-Civil War era. He strongly encouraged African Americans to purchase land and engage in practices of temperance and thrift. Browne’s most profound accomplishment was founding Richmond’s Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, an African American fraternal organization. With his leadership, Browne was able to help Black members live productive lives without having to depend on the White community. In addition, he provided insurance to members with sick and death benefits through the organization.
Through the confidence and success that came from the True Reformers, Browne was then able to create and organize a bank, which became the nation’s first chartered black financial institution and a model that others would follow. The True Reformers dedicated a new building that housed operations, which contained a bank, several business offices, three stores, four large meeting rooms, and a concert hall. This space became the largest building in the city owned by Blacks and constructed entirely by African Americans. By that time, the True Reformers membership count approached 10,000. It soon acquired a hotel, published a weekly newspaper, ran a general merchandise store, and operated a home for aged members.
Browne built the True Reformers into the country’s most prominent black fraternal society and black-owned business. He came from nothing and built himself a legacy that will live on forever. He quickly became an inspiration to so many during his time and now our time. Browne’s work establishing Blacks into the community was a tremendous step in the right direction and aided progress to where we are today.