The Coup

This is my Granny! Wasn't she wonderful?

Last Tuesday, I told y’all how my granny went from the farm to business school and survived an armed bank robbery. If you missed it, go read it now before you go any further. This is the second half of the story.

After the robbery, Granny kept right on working at the bank, but Mrs. Hurt, naturally, had little desire to stay on there. In need of a new president, the Board of Directors appointed a man named Wilbur Holder from Jackson, Miss., as the president, and he soon moved to Citronelle with his wife and two little boys.

Now Wilbur’s wife, Lela Gray, liked “fine things,” as Granny would have called them, and Wilbur struggled to keep her in the lifestyle that she wanted. Gradually he started skimming a little bit here and a little bit there from the Christmas Club accounts and leaving postdated checks in place of the cash. This went on for a number of years until the bank examiners finally got wise to his little scheme, and after 12 years or so, Wilbur was dismissed from the bank.

Now we’re up to about 1940 or so, and Granny’s been working at the bank for 20 years. But let’s back up just a minute, because of lot of other things happened during that time.

Right after the robbery in 1928, she noticed that people were borrowing money from the bank to buy homes, but they need insurance. That’s when she decided to start selling insurance on her off days. She got a wild hair in her 30s to travel to Cuba, so she and a lady friend booked passage on a United Fruit Company ship and went there during the revolution when Batista was trying to overthrow Machado. She got married to my grandfather, Fred Malone, in 1938. The next year they had a child who died as a toddler. They had my mama in 1942.

All the time Granny kept working at the bank. Saving her money. Buying up little bits of stock as she could.

I should also mention that in her late 30s, Granny developed a rare form of arthritis called Marie-Strumpell Disease which usually attacks the spine. From then on she had and extremely limited range of spinal motion. Her back was literally  stiff as a board. And in the early 40s, my grandfather contracted tuberculosis, so Granny cared for him, along with her infant daughter, and saw to it that he had the best treatment possible, including taking him to the Ochsner Clinic in New Orleans and arranging for him to spend time at a sanitarium in New Mexico. It must have worked because Baw lived well up into his 70s.

Granny also lent money to anyone whom she thought could pay it back — white and black alike, including lending money to a black woman named Rosa A. Lott. Rosa took this money and attended Alabama State Teachers College. Why is Rosa Lott so important? Well, when Rosa came back home to Citronelle after college, she tirelessly lobbied the Mobile County School Board to build a high school for black children in Citronelle, and they finally did in 1949. Rosa Lott served as its principal until she died in 1952. It was in that very same building, then called Rosa A. Lott Elementary School, that I attended grade school in the mid 70s.

So now, let’s go back to 1940. Wilbur is out because of his sticky fingers, and the Board appoints Sam Andrews, another stockholder and owner of the local hardware store, as the new president. But Sam has a store to run, and Granny is essentially managing the bank. At one point, Sam even offers to sell Granny his stock in the bank, but at the time, she can’t afford to. Granny always said that the Board never paid her a fair wage — a man’s wage — no matter how hard she worked.

Everything comes to a head at a 1942 Board meeting. Sam is tired of running the bank and wants to go back to his hardware business. Some of the other men want to oust Granny entirely, even though she’s well-loved in the community and has helped countless people over the years. Granny said of this turn of events that “men just don’t want women to do things.”

Just when the conversation is getting particularly heated and contentious, Granny remembers Sam’s offer to sell his stock. She knows that if she can get his, that, combined with the stock she’s bought little by little over the years, she’ll have the controlling interest. In front of all his fellow (male) Board members, Granny asks Sam if he remembers making her that offer. A man of integrity, Sam says he does remember it, much to the shock of his fellow Board members.

“Does your offer still stand?” Granny asked.

“It does,” said Sam.

A few days later, when the purchase was completed, my grandmother, Audrey May Rowell Malone, was appointed as the bank’s president and served in that capacity for the next 30 years, ultimately selling to what is now Regions Bank. And for a good bit of that time, she was the only female bank president in Alabama. Of her little coup, Granny said, “You have to be there when the time comes and have your facts all gathered up.”

During the rest of this Women’s History Month, let’s remember all the women like my granny. Women who worked twice as hard for half the pay. Women who lifted other women up. Women who struck off on wild adventures. Women who had side-hustles, families, and crushing responsibility but who still found the time to laugh, and learn, and love, and pray. Women who paved the way in sweat and blood for you, and me, and our children, and our children’s children.

Let’s remember a little farm girl who became a bank president.