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Credit Unions, The Great Migration and Black History Month

By Jennifer Esperanza, Senior Director of Organizational Culture and Strategy

February 1, 2024

From 1910-1970, an estimated six million African Americans left the southern United States to settle in cities elsewhere. Also known as “The Great Migration,” this was a mass exodus of African Americans to escape the brutal violence of the Jim Crow South. Even after the abolishment of slavery, African Americans weren’t completely free from racial hatred and violence. More than once a week on average, a Black person was lynched for some perceived breach of a false racial hierarchy. Even well into the 20th century, it was considered a crime in some states for an African American to play checkers with a white person or for a Black driver to pass a white motorist on the road.

The Great Migration meant that African Americans also left behind exploitative and demanding agricultural labor for better paying jobs in cities such as Detroit, Chicago or Seattle.  Auto factories, banks, telephone companies, state agencies, and municipal services (i.e. water and power plants) in the North offered African Americans a real chance at achieving a solid middle-class life from which to build stability and wealth. And credit unions are part of this story: look no further than Select Employer Groups (SEG) affiliated with many credit unions throughout this country.  Credit unions with SEGs were tied to industries that employed African Americans—many of whom were part of the Great Migration.

February is Black History Month and credit unions can use this time to learn more about the plight of Black Americans in their community, particularly with SEGs both past and present. When I have conversations with Coopera clients, some share stories about how their credit union began as SEGs that included bus drivers, postal workers, auto factory workers or telephone company employees of African American descent.


Look into the history of your own credit union and especially SEGs in your community. These organizations may have played an important role in helping African American workers begin their journey towards achieving financial security. Learning more about this history can assist credit unions to: 

  • Grow African American membership:  Elderly African Americans who may have been part of the Great Migration and members of SEGs are, sadly, an aging population. Leveraging your history is a great way to attract younger generations of consumers who want to put their money in financial institutions that have demonstrated a strong social mission. 

  • Reconsider products and services to be more culturally relevant: You may have community members who are descendants of the Great Migration—and many of these members still maintain family and economic ties to their hometowns in the South. This is similar to the experiences of many immigrants and refugees who are also part of your community. Consider the extent to which your credit union offers useful loan products, savings accounts, and wire transfer options that demonstrate the importance of maintaining family and economic ties, despite geographical distances.      

  • Invest more fully in DEI: Talking about Black History and the Great Migration are acts of organizational diversity, equity and inclusion. This demonstrates your credit union’s commitment to investing in and fostering connections with the African American community.

Overall, celebrating Black History Month provides an opportunity for credit unions to engage with their staff, members and communities in meaningful ways that can revitalize membership, and show your credit union’s relevance to all.

Discover More 

Find more thought leadership articles, press releases, Innovator Spotlight videos and more by visiting the Coopera Commentary page.

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