Marshall Johnson wants to use the banking system to instill greater economic pride among blacks.
The 40-year-old advertising executive is marketing checks bearing portraits of famous African-Americans. The checks have been introduced in several test markets and will be available nationally next month.
"We hope the checks will make African-Americans aware of their economic power, as well as establish a sense of pride and respect for the accomplishments of African-Americans," Mr. Johnson said.
Marketing experts said Mr. Johnson's checks could help banks attract black customers and help diffuse criticism that they are insensitive to the needs of minorities.
An added benefit is that the checks also help satisfy some of the rules of the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to show they've made serious attempts to serve minority communities.
"The regulatory agencies definitely want banks to do things that signal they want minority customers," said Jo Ann S. Barefoot, a Columbus, Ohio, consultant who specializes in the CRA.
Several financial institutions already offer Mr. Johnson's checks, including Atlanta-based Bank South Corp.; Washington, D.C.-based Riggs National Corp., and Leader Federal Bank for Savings in Memphis.
A Gesture of Welcome
"One thing we learned from focus groups was that the minority markets said, 'We don't feel invited to come into your bank,'" said Judy Talley, a senior marketing manager at Bank South. "So this was our way of saying, 'We welcome you and want you.'"
Mr. Johnson's checks feature images of five famous black Americans: abolitionist Frederick Douglass; Madam C. J. Walker, a pioneer in the hair care industry; Booker T. Washington, educator and founder of Tuskegee University; George Washington Carver, agricultural chemist, and pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey.
Mr. Johnson, who runs a five-person advertising agency in Memphis, originally wanted to see the images of the famous black American on the nation's currency. But realizing that was an ambitious undertaking, he set his sights on the nation's banking system.
"One of the old myths is that African-Americans don't have checking accounts," Mr. Johnson said. The checks, he said, will heighten banks' awareness of the growing number of black professionals.
Big Check Printers Sign On
Finding that banks were receptive to his idea, Mr. Johnson arranged licensing rights to the images of the five famous personalities. Three major check printers - John H. Harland Co., Deluxe Checks Inc., and Liberty Check Printers - bought into the program and have begun offering it to clients in selected markets during the past few months.
Bank South introduced the African-American checks earlier this month to coincide with the third annual National Black Arts Festival, a weeklong event held in Atlanta to celebrate black culture. Ms. Talley said it was too early to assess the response.
Bank South is pricing Mr. Johnson's checks aggressively. The company offers a series of 200 checks for $10.23, compared with the $11 it charges for a standard order.
Riggs introduced the series in mid-February in Washington to coincide with Black History Month. Nettie Washington Douglass, a decendant of both Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, attended the kickoff press conference.
Word of Mouth
Heavy promotion in the Riggs branches attracted about 450 new accounts. David Palombi, a spokesman for Riggs National Corp., said the bank expects interest to increase as word of mouth spreads.
Industrial Bank of Washington, a black-owned institution, introduced the check series several months ago. Senior vice president David Poole said the bank has attracted fewer than 100 new accounts, but he considers that a good response for an institution of its size. Industrial Bank has $180 million in assets.
"We haven't really publicized it yet," Mr. Poole said.
Mr. Johnson said he is donating about 16.5% of his licensing profits to the United Negro College Fund, which raises money for 41 predominantly black colleges and universities. Mr. Johnson says individual banks are also making their own contributions.
Bank South, for example, is donating $1 from every order of checks.
"Our overall goal is to give something back to the community," Mr. Johnson said.