Preserving the history of the first black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest

SEATTLE — The Liberty Bank Building first opened in 1968, providing hope and financial freedom to minorities in Seattle during a time period when there wasn’t much of either.

The bank has been closed for decades but has since gone through a major transformation.

It started as a mission to create financial equality as a response to redlining in our region.

Michelle Purnell-Hepburn's parents were two of the 10 founders of Liberty Bank.

“My father always believed that African Americans needed access to capital,” Purnell-Hepburn said. “We wanted to be able to support the central area. We wanted to be able to support -- again the term then, minorities, the term today, people of color.”

Liberty Bank opened in May of 1968, a tumultuous year. Seattle was entrenched in the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated.

“I was there opening day and there was television coverage. That didn't just happen, in 1968, and certainly in the African American community,” Purnell-Hepburn said.

For 20 years, Liberty Bank provided crucial financial services to Seattle's Central District.

The bank closed in 1988, and over the years changed ownership before eventually sitting vacant. Even after its closing, it still stood as a symbol of resilience.

The redevelopment project, which opened in 2019, now provides affordable housing and support for black-owned businesses.

“They had meetings with the community, with Africa Town, and they really pushed for what meant the most to the black community,” said Joah Snowden, the site manager for the Liberty Bank Building.

The new project pays homage to the site’s origin. The first thing people see when they walk into the building is the original vault door from the bank, serving as a symbol of hope for the community and people who live there.

Purnell-Hepburn was on the advisory board for the redevelopment project working with community organizations to help finalize the layout, artwork, key historical pieces and a wall with the founders’ photos to make the project one that elevates the bank’s legacy and the future of the Central District.

“This history of coming together for a common goal… all different races, creeds and colors came together and made a dream come true,” Purnell-Hepburn said.