During the 1950s and ‘60s, the civil rights movement dominated the political landscape. But for Bernard Garrett, an African American born and raised in the South, the surest path to improving conditions for black Americans was by achieving economic freedom.

Garrett, unbeknownst to many, purchased at least 177 buildings, including what was considered to be the tallest structure in downtown Los Angeles in 1961, the Banker’s Building, all the while creating life-changing opportunities for African Americans.

“The only time a man is really truly rich is when he controls money,” Garrett said years later in an interview about his life.

Born in the small town of Willis, Texas, in 1922, Garrett showed a knack for business early on. He worked odd jobs, completing the 11th grade in Houston and running his own cleaning business. Garrett knew, however, he would need to leave the racial oppression of Texas if he wanted a chance to become a wealthy entrepreneur.

Bernard Garrett Moves to California With Family

In a beat-up van, Garrett, his first wife Eunice, and their small children, drove to California in 1945 in pursuit of opportunity. Once in the Golden State, Garrett started another cleaning service and a business collecting wastepaper, eventually saving enough money to buy property in Los Angeles. But his pathway to wealth accelerated when he met a white real estate investor, whom Garrett formally called Mr. Barker. Barker owned an apartment building for sale in a white neighborhood that Garrett wanted to buy. And with a convincing plan, he did.

Garrett paid below asking price, because the units needed fixing up, and obtained small loans from Barker and a bank to complete the project with an agreement that Garrett would rent out the building and pay back the loans. Garrett made good on his word, accomplishing two feats: he made a profit and rented units to blacks seeking better housing in an integrated area.

Barker and Garrett decided to form a partnership investing in properties, where Barker was the face of the deals and Garrett remained invisible.

“He operated in the shadows, because he had to,” says Brandon Winford, a historian at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and author of John Hervey Wheeler, Black Banking, and the Economic Struggle for Civil Rights. “He was seeking capital where capital was not available for African American businesspeople.”

By 1954, Garrett was worth $1.5 million, the equivalent of $14.3 million in current times, making him one of the wealthiest blacks in the country. But he wanted to make bigger deals, and after Barker died unexpectedly, Garrett became bolder in his mission.

Garrett Hires White 'Faces' to Carry Out Deals

Garrett approached Joe Morris, a successful black businessman who owned two nightclubs. He proposed that they buy the Banker’s Building, where most of the banks in Los Angeles were headquartered. The plan required what Garrett later described as hiring “faces,” white men he coached in finance to carry out his deals, while he and Morris remained anonymous.

The faces pretended to be the CEO, overseeing the day-to-day operations, while Garrett and Morris, the true owners, posed as chauffeurs and janitors to monitor their ventures under the radar, either by mopping the floors of their businesses or advising their faces during drives to work.

Garrett hired Matt Steiner as the face of the Banker’s Building acquisition, and it worked. Garrett traded his residential property deeds for stock in the Banker’s Building, gaining a controlling interest in the corporation that owned the property.

Garrett Moves Back to Houston 

Henry Griffin/AP Photo
Melvin I. Belli, right, a San Francisco lawyer, reads a statement for his weeping client, Bernard S. Garrett, in an appearance before the Senate Investigations Subcommittee in Washington, April 1, 1965. Garrett broke down on the witness stand while trying to explain his role in a real estate mortgage deal blamed for the collapse of a Marlin, Texas bank.

But Garrett wasn’t done. “I had a desire to return to Houston, Texas, the place of my birth to give relief to local colored people who were having great difficulty obtaining real estate loans,” he later said in testimony about his dealings before a senate subcommittee.

“There was an orchestrated effort to keep African Americans from becoming a viable economic competitor in this country,” says Blair Smith, chief investment officer of the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation, a commercial real estate lender. “The building block to success, to building wealth, is equity. You have to have ownership. That's why real estate is so important.”

Creating Opportunities for African Americans 

Garrett wanted to create opportunities for African Americans who were routinely subjected to redlining, where banks denied them loans, relegating them to segregated and impoverished neighborhoods and limited income potential. With capital from Don Silverthorne, president of San Francisco National Bank who knew Morris, in 1963 Garrett and Morris bought the Main Land Bank & Trust Co. in Texas City, Texas, with Steiner as their front man. Steiner also fronted their purchase of another Texas bank, First National Bank of Marlin.

Garrett’s banks became a lifeline for the black community. “Black-owned banks were able to help African Americans participate in the economy in ways they were never able to participate,” says Winford. “They were able to purchase homes, take out a small loan to purchase an appliance or a car. Many black churches and schools were helped and saved because of African American-owned banks.”

When Steiner made a series of mishaps as banking laws were changing, Garrett and Morris found themselves under a government investigation, led by Arkansas Senator John McLellan, an anti-corruption sleuth and a vocal opponent of civil rights legislation.

In 1965, Garrett and Morris were sentenced to three years for misapplying $189,000 in bank funds. They served nine months. Garrett started other businesses but none on the scale he had previously known. He died in a Los Angeles nursing home in 1999. His life is portrayed in the 2020 film, “The Banker.”

“He could have functioned and operated and been successful without even thinking, ‘What about African Americans in Texas?’” said Winford. “But he saw a bigger picture.”

HISTORY Vault: Black History

Watch acclaimed Black History documentaries on HISTORY Vault.