As Salal’s VP-Controller, Michelle Purnell-Hepburn is continuing a family tradition of serving in Seattle’s banking industry. Michelle’s parents, James and Mardine Purnell, were among the founders of Liberty Bank, which was located at 24th Avenue and East Union Street in Seattle’s Central District. Liberty Bank was the first minority-owned bank west of the Mississippi river.
From 1968 to 1988, Liberty Bank served the diverse Central District community, providing financial services to many who were unable to find them elsewhere. Michelle’s father served as the bank’s president from 1972 until 1983. Michelle’s mother was Secretary of the Board.
Deep Roots in Seattle Banking
Michelle got her start in the financial industry when she was very young, embossing and stamping pamphlets for Sentinel Credit Union, which was also in the Central District. Sentinel Credit Union was founded by Michelle’s father, along with other members of the Masonic Prince Hall Grand Lodge for African Americans in 1958. From the start, James Purnell’s goal was to create a financial institution where African Americans would be treated fairly and given a chance to create their own destiny.
The founding of Liberty Bank wasn’t without its struggles. The bank’s charter applications to Washington’s Department of Financial Institutions were denied more than once, including in 1965. As Michelle told the People of the Central Area blog, “I just think the powers that be were not quite prepared for [a minority-owned bank] at that time.” Liberty Bank finally did receive its charter, and opened its doors on May 31, 1968.
Michelle went on to work at Liberty Bank after school and during the summers until she graduated from college. Michelle values her deep roots in Seattle’s financial industry. “It has been interesting going from Liberty Bank to a stint in high tech, then to the Metropolitan Credit Union,” Michelle said. “I have seen certain members of the Liberty Bank later at the credit unions I’ve worked for and they say, ‘Oh, here you are now’. So, I’ve seen people who are now at Salal Credit Union, who were members at Metropolitan, and before that, customers of Liberty Bank. That’s been a source of joy for me.”
Honoring the History of Liberty Bank
Liberty Bank became Emerald City Bank in 1988, which was bought by Key Bank in 1993. In 2013 Key Bank sold the property to Capitol Hill Housing with the plan that the property would become affordable housing to honor the site’s historical significance for the Central District community. In 2015 Capitol Hill Housing organized an advisory board for the new building project. Continuing her family’s legacy of serving the residents of the Central area, Michelle was appointed to the board, along with other community stakeholders.
Michelle and the rest of the board recommended the apartments be named after Liberty Bank, and the site should “feature multiple historical elements in the exterior design.” Other board recommendations included integrating the Liberty Bank logo into the building’s sign, reusing brick from the original building, and creating interpretive signage to tell the Liberty Bank story. Inside the building, there will be historical photos, a mural, and repurposing of the vault and safety deposit box doors as art and apartment unit numbers.
“It is important that the story of Liberty Bank is told so that Seattle knows how a multicultural community came together and created an institution that allowed individuals to achieve economic independence and success,” Michelle told the Capitol Hill Seattle Blog in 2015.
Serving the Central District Once Again
A groundbreaking event for the new building took place June 19th to coincide with Juneteenth—the celebration commemorating the abolition of slavery in the US on June 19th, 1865. Michelle was among those who tossed a ceremonial first shovelful of dirt, along with Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, city and state government officials, and representatives from community groups involved with the project. The new Liberty Bank Building will provide 115 affordable housing units and will help Central District residents who are being displaced by swiftly rising housing costs stay in the neighborhood their families have called home for generations. Construction on the new building is expected to be finished in the fall of 2018.
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