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Rocky Mount Exhibit Honors Banking History

PNC Legacy Project

One of the biggest banks in North Carolina is PNC. The bank was introduced to the state after its acquisition of RBC last year.  These banking institutions have roots that reach back to Rocky Mount.  And that’s where a new exhibit honors the region’s rich banking history.

The PNC Legacy Project is the first exhibit you see when you walk into the Imperial Centre for the Arts and Sciences in Rocky Mount.  David Combs is the Mayor of Rocky Mount.  He was born and bred here.

“I’ve seen the banks grow and certainly, both of my parents dealt with these banks that have merged over the years. So Rocky Mount has a long history of banking history,” said Combs.

The exhibit starts at the beginning of eastern North Carolina’s formal marriage between Banking and Agriculture.  Cotton was king and then came tobacco.  Rocky Mount needed somewhere to put all that money.  In 1899, Planters National Bank was born.  Mary Beth Corrigan is the historian and curator of the PNC Legacy Project.

“Banks are often founded in places where the markets are strong, Cleveland and Chicago too.  Rocky Mount is also in the same position,” said Corrigan.  “People want to be able to go to the bank in the same place they go to market.  They want to be able to borrow money for the growing season and then when they sell the goods, to be able to deposit that money and pay back their loans right away.”

And that was the formula for success for Planters National Bank. The multi-media exhibit includes oral histories of thirteen people who had long ties to one or more of the Rocky Mount banks, like long-time employee Marcia Davis.

“As a child, the first experience I had with Planters Bank was taking money down to open a passbook savings account,” said Davis in a recording included in the exhibit.

The next bank to open in Rocky Mount was Peoples Bank and Trust in 1931.  Kate Spruill Harrison is 93-years-old.  She told historians her father, Frank Spruill, founded Peoples Bank in the middle of the Great Depression. He had decided to leave North Carolina Bank and Trust.

“But they continuously put pressure on him to foreclose on people he knew could make it if they had just a little bit more time.  So with these other upstanding people in Rocky Mount, they opened the bank with, as I hear, with just $125,000 capitol,” said Spruill.

“People didn’t think its prospects were very good,” said Mary Beth Corrigan.  "It was founded on April Fool’s Day which was the source for a lot of comment.  And it turned out to be a great success.”

Corrigan says 101 depositors came in on that day.  The average deposit was $504.  Planters and Peoples continued to do well through WWII.  The exhibit includes a 1944 poster from the Office of War Information with a plow in the background.  It tells farmers, “Buy Bonds for Him, Let’s All Keep Backing the Attack.” 

Tom Rogers is a city councilman who wore several hats during his nearly 30 years at Peoples Bank and then Centura Bank.  Centura was formed in 1990 when Planters and Peoples Banks merged.

“You could smell the tobacco in the fall.  And that really kind of had a smell of money, it had a smell of prosperity for people and for the city,” said Rogers.

Centura Bank was acquired by the Royal Bank of Canada in 2001.  It became RBC Centura and then later, just RBC.  A piece of all those banks can be found in PNC.  It bought RBC last year.  America’s banking industry has gone through a major contraction because of the Great Recession.  Today in Rocky Mount , you can find several hundred PNC employees and bank branches that once bore the name of Planters, Peoples and Centura.

Leoneda Inge is the co-host of WUNC's "Due South." Leoneda has been a radio journalist for more than 30 years, spending most of her career at WUNC as the Race and Southern Culture reporter. Leoneda’s work includes stories of race, slavery, memory and monuments. She has won "Gracie" awards, an Alfred I. duPont Award and several awards from the Radio, Television, Digital News Association (RTDNA). In 2017, Leoneda was named "Journalist of Distinction" by the National Association of Black Journalists.
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