How an African American Banker Built an Empire During the Height of Jim Crow

During the 1950s and 1960s, the civil rights movement dominated the political landscape. But for Bernard Garrett, an African American born and raised in the South, the surest way to improve conditions for black Americans was to achieve economic freedom.

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

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

Born in the small town of Willis, Texas in 1922, Garrett demonstrated a talent for business at an early age. He did odd jobs, completed grade 11 in Houston, and ran his own cleaning business. Garrett knew, however, that he would have to quit Texas racial oppression if he wanted the chance to become a wealthy entrepreneur.

Bernard Garrett settles in California with his family

In a battered pickup truck, Garrett, his first wife Eunice and their grandchildren, traveled to California in 1945 in search of an opportunity. Once in the Golden State, Garrett started another cleaning service and an old paper collection business, ultimately saving enough money to buy property in Los Angeles. But his path to wealth accelerated when he met a white real estate investor, which Garrett officially called Mr. Barker. Barker owned a building for sale in a white neighborhood that Garrett wanted to buy. And with a convincing plan, he did it.

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