New mural honoring Dr. Justina Ford adorns branch that lives at intersection of African American history

February 14, 2020 | GET MORE : Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

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The bank and its employees have long been a part of the historic Five Points neighborhood in Denver

The U.S. Bank branch in the heart of Denver’s Five Points historic cultural district has always prided itself on its deep connections to the community once known as the “Harlem of the West.” Many of the bank’s employees went to school or live nearby and know all of the local business owners on a first-name basis. In addition, the bank is a longtime sponsor of the neighborhood’s legendary Juneteenth Music Festival.  

“We have all of the tools of a big bank with the feel of a small town,” said Laneeta Sowell Pruitt, branch manager for the past eight years. “We all look out for each other here in a way I’ve never seen in other places where I’ve worked.”

So when Connect for Health Colorado, the state-run health-insurance exchange, needed a large public-facing space to create a mural commemorating Dr. Justina Ford for Black History Month, the bank was quick to offer its expansive south-facing brick exterior wall. 

Dr. Ford was a medical pioneer and beloved community physician who delivered more than 7,000 babies during her 50 years of practice in Denver. Her nearby home, where she treated many of her patients, is now the Black American West Museum & Heritage Center

Earlier this month, award-winning Chicago street artist Max Sansing completed the vibrant mural depicting her legacy. Dr. Ford was the city’s only licensed female doctor in the early 20th century and is remembered for putting underserved residents across the city on the path to health.

“To me, this is what Black History Month is about – celebrating and honoring the past to bring it to life today,” said Patrina Pettry, Consumer & Business Banking market leader for U.S. Bank in Denver. “You can just feel the history when you walk in this branch and walk around this neighborhood.”

The U.S. Bank branch itself sits at the five-pointed intersection that gives the neighborhood its name. A plaque outside notes that the building was once home to Atlas Drugs, Denver’s only white-owned drugstore where African Americans could sit at the soda fountain. Atlas, which opened in 1911, came to symbolize the growing strength of Denver’s civil rights movement over the next 50 years. Nearby, the Rossonian Hotel was once home to performances from jazz icons like Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington. 

The bank today counts many prominent businesses and community institutions as customers, including soul-food restaurant Welton Street Café and the more than 150-year-old Zion Baptist Church. 

It even employs a local businessman, Chris Hall, who joined the team as a peak-time teller nearly two years ago. Hall owns a nearby barbershop, Center of Attention, and decided to join the bank because he was interested in learning more about finance and could schedule around his shop’s hours.

Hall worked for former Denver Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony’s now-shuttered Studio 15 downtown barbershop before opening up his own shop in Five Points in 2011. Hall grew up visiting his aunt and uncle’s dry-cleaning business that was nearby, and wanted to give back to the neighborhood by creating a gathering spot for regulars to socialize about “everything – we talk about politics to health to relationships to whatever may have happened that day.” He often partners with Connect for Health to offer free blood-pressure screenings to his regular customers, and takes his role as a trusted counselor as seriously as his hair-styling skills.

“I’ve had some of my customers for years, and I’ve even watched their kids grow up,” Hall said. “When you’re a stylist you can notice small changes in the health of your regulars that they might not even notice themselves.”

Much of the talk in the neighborhood these days is about the sudden rent increases and changing demographics, as the high-rise condos and boutique fitness studios in the trendy nearby RiNo and ballpark neighborhoods creep ever closer.

Norma Casillas-Nava, who has worked at the Five Points branch for 11 years, said several longtime customers have moved to more affordable areas but still travel to the Five Points branch to do their banking.

“This branch has a homey feel – with so many of our customers, I know exactly what they’re going to do and how they want their money every time I see them,” she said.

For branch manager Sowell Pruitt, it isn’t unusual for customers to patiently wait hours to talk to her when she’s busy because they want to catch up.

“I’ve got to bring my ‘A game’ every day, because I get so much love back from the customers – and I give them my heart, too,” she said.

Written by Joyzelle Davis of U.S. Bank. The mural will be dedicated at a public event at 10 a.m. on Friday, Feb. 21.

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