George McReynolds and His Wife on the Suit That Changed Merrill
(Bloomberg Markets) -- This Bloomberg Markets article is part of “The Only One in the Room,” an oral history of the Black experience on Wall Street.
George McReynolds, 75, joined Merrill Lynch in 1983. He was one of just a few Black brokers for the company in Tennessee. In 2005 he brought a racial discrimination lawsuit that was later allowed to be a class action. In 2013, after Bank of America Corp. bought Merrill, the company reached a settlement for $160 million, then a Wall Street record, which covered about 1,400 Black brokers. McReynolds retired last year. Elaine McReynolds, his wife, was an insurance commissioner for the state of Tennessee and an administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
I didn’t really know what Wall Street was. I do remember seeing a TV show in which the main character was a broker.
There were about 300 boys in [my high school in Kentucky], and eight African Americans within four grades. When I went home, I would go in one direction; when [the White students] went home, they would go in another direction.
I ended up getting into the management training program at Sears. I met a number of people who had been with Sears for 25 years, and a lot of them were retiring with $500,000 or more, because they had the Sears stock from the beginning. That’s what got me interested in stocks and the markets.
At Merrill, there were people there that didn’t want to talk to me and people there who did. And you learned real quick who you could talk to and who you could work with.
He came home and his look was different. Something was bothering him. We used to go back and recount our days. We used to do damage control before we went to sleep each night. It’s like you’re a turtle, and there are soft spots in your shell, and you have to tighten them up. You know you’re getting hit, so you just don’t want it to sink too deeply, but it hurts.
That night he was telling me about these rookies that were standing over his cubicle. They were standing there having a conversation about why a Black man couldn’t and shouldn’t be in the financial-services industry. And George is sitting right there. It hit its target. It hurt. We just wrapped around each other and said, “We’ll get up tomorrow, put on our pants, and go back out and do it again.” This is not going to stop him. There were many nights like that.
It made me even more determined that I was going to make it. I would go in early in the morning. I was working at least 12-hour days.
I didn’t get accounts handed to me like other people did. I had to get out, find people, meet people, talk to people, and convince them that they wanted to work and invest with me. I’d get handed an account of somebody who would come in and have $5,000 or $6,000 to invest. People I had a lot more experience than were being handed accounts in the millions, and they didn’t know what they were doing.
The manager at that time asked me to help train a couple of White brokers, and after I got them to the point where they could halfway do something, the manager took a good part of my book from me.
I don’t remember there being more than three African-American brokers at one time in middle Tennessee. Most of the time it was under three.
The lawsuit just came about because I got fed up with what was going on. I was seeing a number of African Americans that were being hired into the business but were having trouble making it, while other people, Whites, were being given accounts and able to make it through.
When a manager came in and took a lot of that business away from me and assigned it to some rookies that were having trouble making it, and then came back to me and complained to me because my business was down, that was finally the thing that forced me or made me decide I’ve got to file a lawsuit. If I didn’t do it, nobody would.
I think living as an African American in this country is a stressful life event on any day. Was this additional stress? Yeah, it was. He had a major heart attack in December 2006. So he ends up with [a] quadruple bypass.
He gets out of the hospital, but then things go from bad to worse. They resuscitated him once or twice on the way to the hospital. He died four times. He lost his colon, he lost his toes, I was just praying for him not to lose his mind. The Lord answered my prayers. And he went back to work in April.
I stuck with [the legal action against Merrill] for nine years because I was looking for change. I was looking for additional African Americans to be hired into the firm, and the only way that that was going to happen was to do it with the court’s help.
After the settlement, Merrill started having all the African-American brokers come to a meeting for additional training. We would talk to people who were being hired to tell them what they would have to go through.
If anybody ever remembers George McReynolds in the future, well, that was one of the guys who got the ball rolling. And he did it with such style and grace that he worked for this company five years after he successfully sued them.
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