On August 16, 1921, Citizens Trust Bank opened on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta. Its founder, African American businessman Heman Perry, served as the first chairman of the board, and Henry C. Dugas was Citizens Trust’s first president. An instance of discrimination inspired the creation of the bank: Perry attempted to be fitted for a pair of socks at a white-owned store and was refused. So that Black businessmen could own and operate businesses independently of white-owned financial institutions, Perry and four other partners (collectively known as the”Fervent Five”)formed Citizens Trust Bank.
The bank officially reorganized itself in 1927 with new articles of incorporation and bylaws. Clayton R. Yates was elected acting chairman of the board and Lorimer D. Milton was elected cashier-treasurer. A decade later, in 1938, Milton would become Citizens Trust’s president and chief executive officer (CEO).
On March 5, 1933, the day after being sworn into office, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared a”bank holiday,” which for four days forced the closure of the nation’s banks and halted all financial transactions in an attempt to allow the new administration time to develop a plan to address the current banking crisis. Because of its sound operation, Citizens Trust was one of the first banks to reopen. Shortly thereafter, Citizens Trust became the first African American–owned bank to become a member of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. In 1948 Citizens Trust became the first African American–owned bank to join the Federal Reserve Bank.
In the 1950s Citizens Trust began investing in the development of housing subdivisions throughout southwest Atlanta, creating neighborhoods that would become some of the most affluent residential areas for African Americans in the country. After the development of the Hunter Road project using a special program of the Federal Housing Administration, the bank developed the Mozley Park subdivision, for which white banks would not provide mortgages. In addition Citizens Trust provided financing of the Morris Brown subdivision and the Bankhead and Hightower communities. The bank was also instrumental in providing financing for African Americans purchasing homes in white communities. During this time Citizens Trust opened its first branch office, the Westside Branch.
In the mid-1960s Milton and his management team recognized the need for a new headquarters and planned a new facility at 75 Piedmont Avenue. After completion of the building, Milton retired. He had been an original employee of Citizens Trust during the Perry years and had guided the bank through the Great Depression, World War II (1941-45), and racial segregation. Citizens Trust had gone from approximately $300,000 in total assets at the beginning of his tenure to more than $26 million at the time he retired. In 1971 Charles Reynolds, the bank’s executive vice president, succeeded Milton as president, and I. Owen Funderburg, president and CEO of Gateway National Bank in St. Louis, Missouri, became CEO and president in 1975.
Under Funderburg’s leadership Citizens Trust expanded its role in the National Bankers Association, the trade group for the nation’s minority-owned commercial banks. By 1985 Citizens Trust had increased its size to $96 million and was named bank of the year by Black Enterprise magazine. The magazine article touted Funderburg’s effective management style and the advances made by the bank during his administration. By 1990 the bank was solidly over $100 million in size and often challenged Industrial Bank of Washington in Washington, D.C., and Seaway National Bank in Chicago, Illinois, as the largest Black-owned commercial bank in the country. Funderburg retired in 1992, after seventeen years with Citizens Trust.
In 1992 William L. Gibbs was named Citizens Trust’s new president and CEO. Under Gibbs, Citizens Trust continued its expansion program by opening new in-store branch offices in Cub Foods grocery stores, beginning with one on Lawrenceville Highway in Atlanta. The bank’s new motto was”Strength through Progress.”
In July 1997 Gibbs resigned from Citizens Trust, and the bank decided to explore a merger with First Southern Bank, through which First Southern president James E. Young would assume the presidency of the new bank. The merger was finalized on January 30, 1998, and Young took the helm of the expanded Citizens Trust in February. Citizens Trust ended the month with approximately $191 million in total assets.
In June 1998 Citizens Trust, which was considered the leading church lender relative to its capital base in metropolitan Atlanta, solicited the partnership of three other minority-owned banks and loaned the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church $5.5 million to finance the construction of a new sanctuary.
In the spring of 1999, Young announced that the common stock of Citizens Trust was available in the public market, and the bank’s stock began trading publicly. Additionally, Citizens Trust became the first and only African American–owned bank in the nation to become part of the Small Business Administration’s Preferred Lender Program.
On March 10, 2000, Citizens Trust assumed all the deposits and purchased most of the assets of Atlanta’s Mutual Federal Savings Bank. Through the acquisition, Citizens Trust’s assets increased by some $30 million to nearly $250 million. Justthree years later, on February 28, 2003, Citizens Trust acquired Citizens Federal Savings Bank in Birmingham, Alabama. Through the acquisition of Citizens Federal, founded in 1957 by African American businessman A. G. Gaston, Citizens Trust increased its assets to nearly $400 million.