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Mainland & Trust Company Bank

Bernard Garrt and Joe morris

Bernard 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. These are the two gentlemen the movie “The Bankers” were based on.

Bernard Garrett, founder of the Main Land & Trust Bank was born in the small town of Willis, Texas, in 1922, and he showed a knack for business in his early years.   In 1943 Garrett took his family to California to pursue financial opportunities.  He was able to obtain a small measure of the success her pursued, but knew he would need the help of a “white” face to fully capitalize on his dreams.  Bernard Garrett found that person in Mr. Barker.  Garrett wanted to buy an apartment building in an all-white neighborhood.  He knew the owners would never sell him the property so he befriended and convinced Barker to sell Garrett the property below asking price.  Garrett would also obtain the small loans from a local bank on behalf of Garrett in order to renovate the buildings.  The loans were paid back and the units were rented to black who were seeking better housing in an integrated area.  Due to the success of that original project, the due formed an investment partnership to purchase other properties.   Barker obtained the properties and Garrett actually owned them.

“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 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 developed a passion to help colored people. “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.”

“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.”

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.”



Alexis Clark is the author of Enemies in Love: A German POW, A Black

Nurse, and an Unlikely Romance, and an adjunct professor at Columbia

Journalism School. Previously an editor at Town & Country, she has

written for The New York Times, Smithsonian, NBC News Digital, and

other publications.