“When did you first find out about credit?” Corbin Hargraves asked me one night sitting at Tonsler Park with Harrell, Bellamy, and Davenport.
I told them that I’d only recently learned about credit, because growing up, my parents never had any credit cards. All four of them erupted in laughter, nearly falling out of their chairs.
“Now,” Hargraves said. “Ask any one of these brothers in here did they grow up in that situation?”
Corbin Hargraves came from a loving, two-parent, middle class household in Danville. His parents taught him the value of hard work and the importance of faith, but the lesson that ultimately had the most impact came from a piggy bank he got when he was 3. He was fascinated by it, loved dropping money into the slot and watching as the amount grew. The day he got his first paycheck, his father helped him open his first bank account. From then on, Hargraves says, “Saving [money] became, like, a huge goal for me.”
After graduating with a degree in business management from Virginia Tech, Hargraves was offered a job as a financial advisor for a friend who played professional basketball overseas. It was a dream job, traveling through Europe, Japan and Australia, picking up other clients as he went. Eventually, he decided to settle down, taking a job in 2006 as a licensed financial advisor for a now defunct company in Charlottesville.
That’s when his love of saving money and his professional experience collided with his current mission: “The way in which I would see other advisors treat those that look like me coming into [my former company] was scary. It was almost as if they knew they had a deer in the headlights … and can just prey on this person right here, because they lack the knowledge.”
I’ll paraphrase the story he told me about Charlottesville’s black community. The education gap between blacks and whites doesn’t end in school. Whereas whites have long used financial knowledge to transfer wealth from generation to generation, what many older African-Americans have passed down is fear and distrust for a system they felt was out to destroy them. For most of their history, blacks in this country were denied access to the tools of wealth creation and preservation. Eventually those barriers began to be removed, but a culturally reinforced ignorance about money management carried on. Financial illiteracy keeps large numbers of African-Americans trapped in a cycle of poverty, and so financial illiteracy is Hargraves’ mortal enemy.
When he asked me how I learned about managing money, I told him my mom took me to see a financial advisor when I was still in high school.
“When did you get exposed to credit,” he asked Harrell.
“When I was an adult and I read it in a book,” Harrell said.
“Wesley, when did someone tell you about credit?” he asked.
“When you told me about it,” Bellamy said.
“And how old were you when I told you?”
He was 24. But after answering the question he added that he’s had bills in his name since he was 13.
“My mom’s credit was so shot we couldn’t even get a phone,” Bellamy said. “So I remember her putting the phone in my name. And of course, I remember when I first went off to school, 18, 19… and I’m checking my credit report, I’m like, why the hell is this on here?”
For two years, Hargraves worked for someone else. Then in 2009 he and a partner started their own finance company, The Providence Group of Virginia. At the same time, he became a licensed mortgage broker, allowing him to work part time for a real estate firm, and adding affordable housing to the list of issues he’s actively concerned with.
Providence Group’s customers are mostly professionals or people heading towards retirement, and they come from all races and classes, but Hargraves has a strong desire to teach his community how to better manage its money. He conducts seminars at black churches and nonprofits, and every Tuesday morning he has a financial talk show on 92.7 KISS FM.
In 2010 he started holding a backpack drive every August, giving out backpacks filled with school supplies to kids in Charlottesville (HYPE joined last year). And he’s dabbled in event promotion as well, organizing several concerts and basketball exhibitions, always with a portion of the proceeds going to charity.
Hargraves, significantly, moves between the UVA and local African-American communities seamlessly, in part because his brother Ryan Hargraves is the Senior Associate Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at UVA and in part because his education and professional background put him in contact with all kinds of people.
In general, he’s pretty low key, often quite formal, and dresses with the Afro-Preppy chic that many NBA players and recording artists have adopted in recent years. But when he talks about the conjunction of economics and race, Hargraves gets louder and more intense, driving each point home with a verbal hammer. Like the other three men I interviewed for this story, he talked a lot about finding purpose in life, about how he found his.
“I like to see people that look like myself succeed in business,” he says. “I encourage it, I assist, I give, I serve as an earpiece for people to come vent to me because I’ve been through [the process] myself, starting a company myself. It’s from the heart. It’s genuine.”
Around 2006, Quinton Harrell started to feel the economy change, but he didn’t know enough to know how it was changing or what he should do about it. By then, he owned three houses, two of which he rented out. He was perfectly in line with the prevailing economic philosophy that debt was good, and spending money makes money.
The financial crash, he said, “was the beginning of me learning a powerfully painful lesson.”
The Great Recession hit minorities way harder than it did white people. Whereas once upon a time banks had avoided lower income blacks and Hispanics, often unfairly denying them loans, in the lead up to the 2008 financial crisis the opposite was true, and those two groups became the main targets for predatory lenders wielding complicated loans with grossly high interest rates.
“Whenever you have an economic downturn, my people, the black community… they’re gonna feel it the most,” he said.
While the overall rate of unemployment in the country topped out at 10 percent, for African-Americans it reached as high as 16.7 percent. A large portion of Harrell’s clientele found themselves out of work or otherwise unable to spend money like they had been. Sales in the stores dropped steadily from 2007 to 2008. At the same time, both of the tenants in his rental properties found themselves unable to pay rent. Unwilling to kick them out, he found himself carrying the mortgages for all three of his houses, plus the rents on his two stores (the rent in Fashion Square, by a nasty coincidence, had also quadrupled.) The houses wouldn’t sell, the tenants couldn’t pay; business was down, and his savings were gone.
As his financial world collapsed, Harrell had an epiphany.
“I don’t know what my purpose is,” he said to himself, “but I know it’s not to continue to sell my people overpriced clothing. I’ve been blessed with more, and I’ve got more understanding now. There’s another purpose for me, something else for me to give and share with the black community.”
He walked out on the lease in Fashion Square, let the bank take his rental properties, and set out to complete his education. The first thing he did was get a real estate license, not so he could sell houses, but so he understood better how to buy one. He enrolled in an accelerated business administration course at Averett University.
“It was a very interesting time,” he says. “It was painful, but I enjoyed it. I embraced all the pain because what it was doing, it was making me into a new man.”
Harrell had previously helped a friend from New York named Ty Cooper promote shows in Charlottesville, and, inspired by Al Gore’s environmental documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, the two of them turned the Players store on West Main into an environmentally friendly dry cleaner called EcoDry.
Harrell finished his business degree in 2011 with a final paper entitled, “African-American Economics.” He left the cleaning business for his current job as procurement technician for Region Ten, and he’s starting another small business with his girlfriend. He’s a member of the steering committee for City of Promise, a grant-funded multi-organization collaboration that seeks to build a cradle to college pathway for students in the 10th and Page neighborhood, and until recently was on the citizens advisory panel of Charlottesville’s Dialogue on Race.
He has a message for young people, born of experience and pain:
“Sittin’ in EcoDry, man … We had these two big windows, and you could just see when people walked by if they were educated or not. It was disturbing to me, because although I saw some black guys walk by that were educated, there weren’t a whole lot. People that are educated don’t walk draggin’ their feet.”