As the founding president of New England’s first black-owned commercial bank, Donald E. Sneed Jr. not only helped provide banking services in Roxbury, a neighborhood substantially underserved by white-run institutions, but he also opened the institution’s doors to residents who wanted to improve their employment prospects.
Among those he hired to work at Unity Bank and Trust was a high school dropout who had worked in a shoe factory and bakery to support his wife and children. The man completed a banking program and went to work at Unity.
“There’s no such thing as ‘it can’t be done,’ ” Mr. Sneed said in a 1969 ceremony, when his new employees celebrated the completion of their training. He drew that observation from his own experience taking a winding route into banking. Mr. Sneed previously had been a sandhog digging tunnels for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. He also worked as a Suffolk County constable, was a bail bondsman, and ran a real estate company before taking the helm of Unity Bank and Trust.
Mr. Sneed, who later was an MBTA administrator, died in his Dorchester home Dec. 15 of respiratory failure. He was 83.
When Unity Bank broke ground in 1968, Mayor Kevin White announced to the crowd that the city would become one of the bank’s depositors.
“You are providing tools for people who are trying to help themselves,” Mr. Sneed told the mayor.
“Our bank will be able to help the Roxbury community move ahead by giving loans to establish new black businesses,” he added. “Our attitude of hiring, making loans, and treating black people with dignity — an attitude which doesn’t seem to exist elsewhere — will help give grass-roots people in Roxbury a sense of direction.”
The bank had its roots in an academic paper written by John Hayden, an African-American in his mid-20s who had studied the need for banks in black communities while he was attending Harvard Business School. He found that banks were largely absent in neighborhoods like Roxbury.
Some of Hayden’s Harvard professors took notice of his findings, as did an economic survey organization in New York City. Studies showed that there was one bank for every 6,100 residents in Greater Boston, but only one bank for every 17,500 residents in Roxbury, the Globe reported in 1967. Unity Bank initially modeled itself on Freedom National Bank, a minority-run institution in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood.
“We’ll be a community bank,” Mr. Sneed told the Globe in 1967, as he and the bank’s other organizers discussed how Roxbury’s residents were often turned down for mortgages and business loans because they weren’t white.
Mr. Sneed was “tenacious, driven, professional, a leader, and a visionary,” said his son, Brian of Baltimore. “My dad was a visionary because of his historical place not only in Massachusetts, but in the country as an African-American bank president.”
Donald Emmett Sneed Jr. was born in Malden and grew up in Cambridge and Everett. His father, Donald Sr., worked as a Hood dairy deliveryman, and had been a Middlesex County constable and a sandhog, working on MBTA tunnels. Mr. Sneed’s mother, Elizabeth, was a homemaker.
The oldest of six children, Mr. Sneed graduated from Rindge Technical High School in Cambridge and later took business management courses at Harvard University.
“He was the epitome of the big brother,” Brian said. “From what has been shared with me by my aunts and uncles, they looked to him for guidance and support and protection. He had a strong work ethic from a young age, in knowing how to work with both your hands and your mind.”
More than a decade before he became one of the organizers of Unity Bank, Mr. Sneed “was 22 years of age when he got into the real estate business,” his son said, “and he was in real estate all the way into retirement.”
He launched a real estate company that was based in Dorchester and which developed, financed, and managed properties throughout Greater Boston.
As a businessman, “my dad was not someone who would take no for an answer from anybody,” Brian said. “When he entered a room, when he answered the phone, when he spoke to groups large or small — he commanded respect. When dad spoke, that was it.”
When the state Board of Bank Incorporation awarded Unity a charter in 1967, Mr. Sneed was the bank’s chairman and president. Unity sold thousands of $10 shares to more than 3,000 stockholders in order to capitalize at $1.2 million upon opening the following year. Of the 22 bank directors, 16 were black.
At the bank’s first annual meeting in 1969, a year after opening, Mr. Sneed listed successes that including deposits of $9.1 million, total assets increasing to $11.1 million, and a share price that had climbed from $10 to $17. The bank encountered difficulties in the following years because of loans that went unpaid, and it was unable to repay a $1.5 million capital loan from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. In 1982, Unity closed and a new minority-owned institution, the Boston Bank of Commerce, assumed the $12 million in deposits held by Unity’s customers.
Mr. Sneed had left as president in 1971 and subsequently worked in the real estate division at the MBTA, where he advocated for minority hiring.
He was a life member of the NAACP, and also served as treasurer and on the board of directors for the Neighborhood Development Corporation of Grove Hall.
Mr. Sneed, whose first marriage ended in divorce, had been married for many years to the former Maxine Thompson, who died in 2013.
Away from work, Mr. Sneed “was a renaissance man,” his son said. Mr. Sneed like to ride his Harley-Davidson motorcycle, and also taught weight training, went for runs in Franklin Park on weekends, was a boxer, and practiced martial arts.
“Not only did he have prowess from a professional standpoint as an entrepreneur in the work world,” his son said, “but he was a world traveler, a motorcycle enthusiast, an advocate for physical fitness.”
A service has been held for Mr. Sneed, who in addition to his son Brian leaves a daughter, Doreen Smith-Hornbeak of Virginia Beach, Va.; two stepsons, Robert D. Johnson of Boston and Richard B. Johnson of East Bridgewater; two stepdaughters, Leslie M. Peters of East Bridgewater and Renee E. Johnson of Boston; two sisters, Marlene M. Pryor of Dorchester and Carol W. Milton-Morealle of Rochester, N.H.; 10 grandchildren; and 16 great-grandchildren.
When Mr. Sneed and Maxine married, they blended their families from previous marriages. “My mom came with four, my dad came with one,” said Brian, who was the sole child they had together.
“My parents embraced their children and their extended family,” Brian said, adding that he and his siblings “all revered my dad and had profound respect and love for him.”
Mr. Sneed, Brian added, “looked after, cared for, and supported all of us with an unconditional positive regard. He was the patriarch of our family, the wise sage. People went to him for advice.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.