The Power of Love
By Brad McEwen
It would be perfectly understandable, and perhaps even justified, if area resident and retired banker Cornell Kimbrough was even the slightest bit jaded about the circumstances of his life.
After all, he spent his formative years in Jim Crow-era Birmingham—a veritable tinder box of racial tensions at the dawn of the civil rights movement—and ultimately spent his entire professional career in a field, which by his own admission, didn’t include many people that “looked like [him],” when he first wandered into the downtown Detroit branch of the Bank of the Commonwealth looking for his first job upon graduation from the University of Detroit.
But what became abundantly clear during my nearly two hour sit down with the former federal bank examiner, is that for all the things that could have negatively shaped his outlook on life, what lies at the heart of Cornell’s world view is love.
For it was love that helped lift him out of difficult circumstances, and it’s love that has guided the direction of his life, both professionally and personally.
“It’s interesting, when you’ve got the family support and love, it can happen,” Cornell said of his ability to rise above the unrest of the day and embark on a successful career. “And in my case, one of the reasons I became a banker, to be fair and honest with you, is that during that time there was no one in the bank that looked anything like me. Period.
“And I just said, ‘You know what? I want to do that.’ I remember the words, ‘I want to do that; I want to be a banker.’ Then it became an obsession.”
Before becoming a banker became his obsession, however, Cornell first had to complete school, something he said was very important growing up in a sizable working-class family. In fact, Cornell said it was an expectation that the Kimbrough children either worked or went to school.
“I came from a large family,” Cornell explained. “There were 11 of us and there are three left now. My oldest brother is 96, lives in Florida. He was an oral surgeon.
“Then I had my older sister who was a chemistry and biology professor at the University of Alabama, so I’ve had sort of a background in terms of family members being well educated. I had one sister who did not go to college but you know what, she became very successful in real estate.
“But the key for me, I think, was my mother and dad were not formally well-educated,” he continued. “I think my dad, who was a coal miner, recognized the only way out, or the only way for his children to see more opportunities, was to become better educated. Because he knew there were limited opportunities for African Americans at that time in that city.
“But living in a house like that, it was full of love. That’s all I ever remember. Love and support. And it was a two bedroom house and you’ve got probably, let’s see here, nine of us left there. How do nine people stay in a two bedroom house and you know the mother and father’s taking one of those bedrooms? The children get the floors, wherever they can get.
“But again, we felt love.”
And it was that kind of love support that really helped lay the foundation for how Cornell viewed the world into which he was born, and shaped how he went about forging a successful life for himself, despite the difficulties presented by society at that time.
For Cornell, the prevailing system of segregation and racism of the day only fueled his desire to find personal and professional success.
“In my mind the Jim Crow system made me more determined to succeed, to overcome the obstacles and the perception of African Americans,” he said of the hard work that led him from Birmingham, to the University of Detroit and ultimately into a career in banking. “I said, ‘You know what? I can do this. I can do this!’ And then it changed to, ‘I am going to do this!’
“So the determination was there.
“And I think I was well-received given the timeframe. But remember I started banking in Detroit, not Birmingham. Birmingham still had a long, long way to go in terms of receiving African Americans. And at that time I felt that Mississippi and the state of Alabama were probably the two worst places in the world for African Americans. But it still did not make me dislike any particular race. It didn’t.
“It made me more determined to say, ‘I’m better than this. I can do better than this.’ That kind of thing. So for me, it helped create a healthy attitude. Treat everybody the same.”
That attitude, honed by his early experiences, and coupled with the support of his loving family, also helped shape what Cornell sees as his core beliefs—beliefs he feels have guided his life and have always kept him focused on the things that are truly important.
In fact, it’s those core beliefs, or lack thereof, that Cornell feels factor into some of the problems generations who have come after him are currently experiencing.
“I do think there’s a group of folks who are looking for excuses, reasons why they don’t want to work,” Cornell said. “You had that even when I was coming along. But it was not noticeable because I came along in an environment where people worked. They didn’t steal. They worked for a living.
“Now it’s like something has gone wrong. I’m a generation or two removed from young kids, but there’s still some foundational principles that I was taught that are still good. It’s like respect, about love, those kinds of things, where it was a core of what I believed in. Now kids don’t have that.
“So let’s say that I understand about supporting each other,” Cornell continued. “And I understand about respect and self-respect and respecting others. I understand about applying yourself, giving 100 percent. So if I’m going to do something and I stray a little bit to the right, I’ve got my core values that are going to pull me right back to the middle. But see a lot of young kids don’t have that today. They don’t have those core values, those principles. So for them to kill somebody means nothing. They don’t even think about it.”
Despite those concerns about the erosion of people’s values, Cornell is an optimist and believes one of the ways to combat that is through education, which is one of the reasons why he has been very instrumental in reviving a financial literacy program known as the Youth Bank, at his church, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist.
The Mt. Zion Youth Bank is a program where children from the congregation are able to open savings accounts and make deposits each Sunday after church and therefore begin learning about the importance of saving and managing money—something Cornell has always had a passion for.
In fact, throughout his career, Cornell said it was always important to him to take the time to educate people, especially African Americans.
“Banking is economic power,” Cornell explained. “You’re able to do a lot of things through banking in terms of educating people. The importance of credit, for example. And what to do if your credit goes bad, how to rebuild credit scores. Understanding those things that bankers are looking for.
“And so in banking seminars, I tell people about risk. And if the risk is manageable, then maybe a deal can be done. But if it’s too much risk, no matter who you are, it’s not going to be done.
“And so I wanted them to understand not to give up on what they’re looking for—especially as African Americans. I know from experience that bankers used to frustrate African Americans in terms of buying houses. You would go to the bank to buy a house and they’d say, ‘Well, I need this document.’ And you’d bring it back and then all of a sudden there’s another document that they need. So we became frustrated and just went away.
“And so part of my goal was to change that to a, ‘Yes, we can help you.’
“But people also need to understand what it is they need to do, and their role in this whole process. It’s not just the fact that you have a willingness or desire to buy something; you’ve got to understand how to qualify to get there.”
Cornell feels that through financial education, people ultimately gain the tools they need to have financial success, but they also ultimately learn important skills that help in all facets of life.
And helping improve people’s lives is something that appealed to Cornell throughout his career in banking.
Whether working as a bank examiner to make sure the playing field was level for all, or working as a retail banker and commercial lender to provide products and services that were truly beneficial to the individuals and businesses he served, Cornell said he always relied on his core values to guide him.
Looking back on those times, Cornell said he is proud that he can reflect on his career and know that he acted with honesty and integrity.
“After getting into banking I saw what I could do in terms of helping people,” Cornell said. “Not just my people, but people period, like I did with the organization who wanted to start a homeless shelter. My instincts told me these two educators; they’ve got jobs of their own. They’ve got careers. This deal is not for them. They want to do something to make a difference in their community.
“Well I want to make a difference in the community too, but it has to make economic sense. They’ve got to show clearly that they have the ability to repay. And then if they can’t pay, what happens? We’ve got to have that out.
“But along with these opportunities you get people that they come to you and they will ask you to do something that you know is not right. I am not going to jeopardize my job or my integrity to do some crazy stuff.
“My integrity has always been intact. That’s the one thing I have never worried about Brad is the police coming to get me out of bed.
“That will never happen. I may be broke, but my integrity is there. And that’s the one thing that you and I know they expect in banking. You’ve got to have integrity, because you work with money. You’re in a position to do things that are wrong. And I saw people do them all the time. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve had to fire.
“But you’ve got to have integrity. And it has to resonate with the community.”
Cornell said that throughout his lengthy career in banking he always tried to keep his focus on doing what was right, not only for the bank but his clients.
In the competitive world of banking, where the need to make the next sale can often test people’s integrity, Cornell said he always held to a simple philosophy of only offering his clients products and services that could truly benefit them. He said he knew if he did that things would work out like they should.
“I knew I worked for a good institution and that they had products and services that could deliver what people needed, it was just a matter of getting that message out there,” Cornell said. “I found the formula to being successful is just being nice to people and giving them something, especially if they’re in business, that will help them accomplish their objective.
“It’s not about just selling a product, but providing something that’s really going to help them. And then they’re likely going to tell other people what you did. And that has been the key to success for me.”
And while being kind and being of service to others certainly helped Cornell during his banking career, that servant mindset also fuels his community involvement activities as well.
Even though he said his age has prompted him to scale back some of his involvement in church ministries and charitable work, Cornell said there are certain things he’s simply committed to doing because he believes it’s simply the right thing to do.
“I’ve gotten to the point now where I’ve had to pull back,” Cornell said. “I’ve been involved with a number of organizations and I think we’ve done well. I think we’ve made a difference. But I’m at a point now Brad where I have to pull back.
“For many years there have been a couple of people that I take to the doctor. There’s one lady in particular who lives far out on the east side. I don’t even go to the east side very often to be honest with you, but I go over there, pick her up, bring her back over to my side of town for the doctor, then take her back over there. That’s half a tank of gas. It’s a half day. But I’m committed to doing it because there are people in that church, contrary to what everybody believes, that don’t have money. They don’t have resources.
“I’ve always said, ‘If I’ve got gas in my car, I’m taking them. I’ve got to do that.”
That Cornell, even in his 80s, is still committed to serving others and still committed to educating his community about personal finance, is quite simply awesome.
But after learning more about his story—the love of family that guided his childhood, his dogged determination to forge a career in banking despite his racial heritage, his dedication to his family, his church and his community—I wasn’t the least bit surprised.
And I also couldn’t help but feel good knowing that Cornell Kimbrough is still working hard to make a real difference in Albany, Georgia.
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