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Emma C. Chappell, founder of United Bank of Philadelphia, dies at 80

She was the first African American woman to found a bank since 1903.

Mrs. Chappell celebrates with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the opening of United Bank of Philadelphia in 1992.
Mrs. Chappell celebrates with the Rev. Jesse Jackson at the opening of United Bank of Philadelphia in 1992.Read moreFile Photograph / File photograph

Emma C. Chappell, 80, of Philadelphia, who galvanized Black Americans around the country in 1992 when she opened United Bank of Philadelphia, died Tuesday, March 16, of complications due to sepsis at Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media.

Mrs. Chappell lived in Wynnefield Heights. She was the first Black woman to found a bank since Maggie Lena Walker established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Va., in 1903.

However, Mrs. Chappell was the first Black woman to charter a commercial bank in the country, said Joann Bell, cofounder of the Black Women’s Leadership Council.

Mrs. Chappell “will always be remembered for her leadership advocacy and business acumen giving voice to social justice, racial and gender equality and creating change,” the council said in a statement Wednesday.

Black Enterprise, the national business magazine, said her accomplishments followed several years of “financial missionary work,” which included raising seed money for a financial institution mostly from individual small investors.

There were other achievements as well.

She was the first African American vice president at Continental Bank, a major bank in Pennsylvania, in 1977.

In 1974, she organized the Model Cities Business and Commercial Project, a federally funded program. Later, after the city assumed control, the project became known as the Philadelphia Citywide Development Corporation.

In 1984, she became treasurer of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign. She also worked with Jackson’s PUSH/ National Rainbow Coalition.

For the last two years, Mrs. Chappell and Bell cohosted a radio program on WURD-AM (96.1 FM/900 AM) called The Black Women’s Leadership Council, which aired from 1-4 p.m. on Wednesdays.

“She loved being on the radio,” Bell said. Mrs. Chappell, Bell, and former City Council members Marian B. Tasco and Augusta Clark, among others, formed the council in 1989 to empower women in politics.

“We were the ones who used to fry the chicken, pass out leaflets, and get everyone to the polls to vote,” Bell said. “But once the person won, and usually they were men, all the men would come together to talk about policy issues. We were there to elevate the men to sit at the table, but we were not invited.”

In a 2019 commentary in The Inquirer, Mrs. Chappell and two others wrote that inequity in business ownership was still a major problem for Black women:

“One of the things we as black women business-owners need to do is to direct that passion into partnerships with other black-owned businesses. Through these partnerships, we can create our own networks and mentorships, and begin to address some of the inequities in our businesses.”

Bell said Mrs. Chappell had “an uncanny sense of humor” and was devoted to her friends.

“If she was your friend, she’d get out of bed in the middle of the night to take you to the hospital. She’d go the extra mile, but she would never talk about it.”

Emma Carolyn Bayton Chappell was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 18, 1941, to Emma and George Bayton. She was the second of three children.

Her family attended Zion Baptist Church in North Philadelphia, where the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan was pastor. They continued to worship there after moving to West Philadelphia when Mrs. Chappell was about 9.

Mrs. Chappell’s mother was an invalid who was bedridden. Still, she taught Mrs. Chappell how to cook. In the book They Carried Us: The Social Impact of Philadelphia’s Black Women Leaders, she described taking pots and pans into the bedroom so her mother could tell her how to prepare the food.

She was 14 when her mother died, said Tracey Carter, one of Mrs. Chappell’s daughters.

After Mrs. Chappell graduated from West Philadelphia High School, Rev. Sullivan helped her get a clerical job at Continental Bank in 1959. She eventually became a teller but could not get another promotion without a college degree.

She attended Temple University at night, earning a bachelor’s degree. She later completed a master’s degree at the Stonier Graduate School of Banking at Rutgers University.

Her marriage to Verdayne Chappell, with whom she had two daughters, ended in divorce.

Carter said her mother blended her strong religious faith with politics and business.

“She was raising money for the bank, and the regulators kept making it harder and harder,” Carter said.

At first, state banking regulators told her to raise $3 million. When she raised that, they told her she needed $5 million, Carter said.

“To beat them at their own game, she raised $6 million. She went from church to church raising funds at $10 a share in blocks of 50, so that for $500, people could invest in the bank.”

Her experiences at the bank led her to see a need for African Americans to own their own financial institution, Carter said:

“She could see the redlining and other things they were doing, so she decided to handle it by creating her own bank.”

Her support also came from the wider community, Carter said. Continental Bank and the Sisters of Mercy invested in United Bank. Mrs. Chappell had served on the board of Mercy Hospital.

In May 2000, she was pressured to resign as United’s CEO amid a dispute with the bank’s board about losses and claims about her management that she called “baseless.” The controversy ended with a civil settlement.

Mrs. Chappell, in 2008, launched Altroy International, a financial and management consultant firm, and in 2015, Gov. Tom Wolf appointed her to his transition team as a financial expert.

In addition to her daughter, Mrs. Chappell is survived by daughter Verdaynea Eason; two grandchildren; a sister; and other relatives.

Funeral arrangements were incomplete Thursday.