Back in 1970 Ebony Magazine sent me to Fayetteville, N.C. to interview and write an article about Marion Rex Harris, a young entrepreneur who was the fist African-American to own a business on Bragg Boulevard, the main business street in that then Ku Klux Klan-friendly city. Terrorist opponents of this bold move responded by burning down the building housing his dry cleaning business.
They had no idea who they were dealing with. Rex rebuilt his establishment despite numerous telephone threats against him and his family and cross-burnings on his property. He moved on to become one of the most successful, determined, knowledgeable, resourceful, award-winning (most notably, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor) entrepreneurs in the country.
Now, some 37 years later, Rex, who has become a world class expert in financial and business affairs, is confronted with injustice by another powerful adversary, Bank of America. When Modeen, his wife, called the bank to make a change of address and to pay off what they thought was a $985 balance on his charge cards, she was shocked when told that the balance was not $985 but over $20,000. The Harrises insisted on seeing the documents with the overblown charges. Numerous phone calls to the bank were ignored. Finally, Rex went to the bank to speak personally with a bank official. When told that the official was unavailable at the time, he said, "I'll wait." Several hours later, he was still waiting. At closing time, he refused to leave the bank until receiving assurance of a meeting the next day with the bank's manager.
During the meeting Rex was told once again that he couldn't see the documents because of privacy considerations since his name wasn't on the charge statements.
"Since my name isn't on the statement, why do you expect me to pay the balance," he asked. The bank official had no adequate response to that very common sense question.
Finally, realizing that they were dealing with someone very schooled in financial affairs, the bank agreed to remove the excessive charges from his account. The Harrises then closed the account, only to find out later that AOL, whose services they weren't using, was receiving a monthly payment from that same account.
That did it for Rex, who now believed that this was not some kind of aberration or mistake but a deliberate policy of Bank of America. "If they did that to me," he said, "what are they doing to low-income, computer illiterate people who use their services?"
Buttressed by the extensive financial and political experience and connections he has acquired as a highly successful entrepreneur on national and international levels, Rex now plans to request an opportunity to testify before the House Banking Committee about what he considers usury practiced by Bank of America and other banks.
"It's the least I can do to help put an end to this kind of flagrant exploitation. This is a national problem."
A. Peter Bailey is the former editor of "Blacklash," the publication of Malcolm X's Organization for Afro-American Unity.