Living legend credits banking for success

Virginia Ali, owner of historical D.C. landmark Ben’s Chili Bowl, got her start at a neighborhood bank.

By Khalil Garriott

The gentleman in his 20s was consistent and laser-focused on a vision for his individual and expert life. He was insistent on pursuing his future life partner.

He operated at a regional dining establishment, pertaining to neighboring Industrial Bank to transfer his incomes. He pertained to her window 3 straight days—selecting to await her, even when other tellers weren’t hectic—ultimately leaving a note with his name and contact number, asking her to call him. But she did not.

“Well, of course, this was 1957,” Virginia Ali states, “and a girl wouldn’t think about doing such a thing. I believed he was charming, however I wasn’t going to call him.

“Another day, just before the bank’s 2 p.m. closing time, he called the bank and asked to speak to her. He said, “This is Ben Ali. Why didn’t you call me?” She responded, “Well, I don’t know you, sir. And I don’t normally call men I don’t know.” His response: “Well, what would you like to understand?

Before Virginia Ali, née Rollins, might react, he continued to rattle off his whole life story to her. While playing the name video game, they developed some typical connections from Howard University, so she felt comfy providing her house contact number to him. They hung around together that night (accompanied by a shared good friend), and the rest was history. The couple got participated in 1958, when he requested her hand in marital relationship—and her interest in partnering with him to open a little dining establishment. “And I said yes,” remembers Ali.

That “little restaurant” has actually ended up being renowned. Ben’s Chili Bowl is a longtime Washington, D.C., organization. As its owner and cofounder, Virginia Ali is 89 years young and still works there a minimum of 5 days each week. Its modest starts trace back to her very first task as a bank teller, a six-year run that laid the structure for years upon years of profession success.

‘A wonderful place to work’

Ali began in the Industrial Bank accounting department for nearly a year prior to ending up being a business teller. “It was there that I realized how much I enjoyed working with people, meeting people from all walks of life and different backgrounds,” she shows. “Being able to interact with people was something I truly loved, and Industrial Bank was a wonderful place to work back in those days.”

Virginia Ali is constantly popular with consumers inside Ben’s Chili Bowl.

If Ali’s very first task wasn’t at the bank, her life would’ve been entirely various. Her connections as a neighborhood lender assisted the couple discover the best partners for releasing business.

“There were many wonderful experiences of working at the bank,” Ali states. “It served me well in many ways. I made lifetime friendships and met people throughout the community.” When it came time to open the Chili Bowl, she understood who to call.

“I knew where to find the architect, the contractor, the plumber, the electrician and the cabinet maker—businesses that were Black-owned and in the community, two or three blocks away,” she states. “And they served us for the duration of their careers. It was wonderful.”

When they searched for the perfect area, Ben and Virginia wanted so-called “Black Broadway” on U Street, a brief range from Howard. Because D.C. was still segregated, they couldn’t go downtown. So she’d see the very same individuals when heading out at nights as she saw throughout the day as bank consumers.

The crucial function of Black-owned banks

Industrial Bank, the very first Black-owned bank in Washington, D.C., is among the nation’s last making it through Black banks. “Black banks have been in communities all over the country, and that has served a great purpose,” Ali states. “It’s still necessary for the country. You get to know the community, and when you learn to treat people the way you like to be treated yourself, it just works.”

ABA has actually partnered with the National Bankers Association—which represents minority banks—to establish resources and programs, consisting of an MDI Partnership Summit series. The series combines minority bank leaders with local and midsize banks to much better serve low-to-moderate-income locations and neighborhoods of color. ABA likewise has a Black Banker Employee Resource Group, an online forum for Black lenders and all bank specialists looking for to advance Black staff members’ sense of market belonging.

Many Black lenders operate in smaller sized companies without access to other Black peers. This truth restricts their sense of belonging within the banking sector. Ali’s beneficial guidance for Black lenders will assist them discover the sense of belonging they look for.

“I think it’s a very necessary service,” Ali states of these ABA programs. “There are still impoverished neighborhoods in this nation, and those little banks—and Black-owned banks, in specific—can definitely do so much to assist. And [ABA] exists to assist them stay up to date with the guidelines and [regulations]that are altering a lot today.

“We certainly need to hold onto those banks that still exist, and they need all the help they can get so that they can help the community.”

An historical landmark

Ali, who has actually resided in the country’s capital given that 1952, keeps an excellent recall of information from years passed—including what others may consider minutiae like company hours and food components. Ben’s initial chili half-smoke, a hotdog with mustard, onions and spicy, homemade chili, is D.C.’s signature meal. And she mentions that her dining establishment has “the best milkshakes in town.” As Morley Safer when explained the facility in a 60 Minutes episode, “it’s like grandma’s kitchen.”

The Chili Bowl opened its doors to the neighborhood on Aug. 22, 1958, when Ali was simply 24. Its 65th birthday celebration, this August, will be an event to keep in mind. “We’re going to be closing down U Street and having a really big party,” states Ali, welcoming all to sign up with.

A-list celebs who have actually dined at Ben’s run the range from artists and stars to presidents and professional athletes. Bono, Bruno Mars, Jimmy Fallon, Denzel Washington, George W. Bush, Kevin Durant, Serena Williams, Chris Rock and Chaka Khan are amongst them.

But one look from a [then]future resident of the White House sticks out for Ali. President Barack Obama’s very first trip after transferring to Washington, D.C. as president-elect was to Ben’s Chili Bowl. He consumed lunch there 10 days prior to his 2009 inauguration, and a framed picture of that check out embellishes a wall in the dining establishment. “That was a real pleasure for me,” she states.

Unforgettable memories

Ali strongly states when a young preacher from Georgia pertained to D.C. to share his dream. He entered the Chili Bowl on a number of events in 1963 as he prepared his March on Washington. Ben and Virginia served the marchers for a number of days and contributed food to the history-making effort.

“Dr. King, a young John Lewis and a few others met with President Kennedy,” she remembers. “And he told President Kennedy that they were here to focus on the injustices of Black people and that they were going to organize a protest march to bring attention to those injustices.”

She includes, with a reflective smile, “And he said to me, ‘President Kennedy said he didn’t think it was a good idea because if there’s an incident, it would set our movement back.’ Dr. King said there wouldn’t be an incident. He brought 250,000 people to Washington on that day. Ben and I were there; it was amazing. Just a sea of people as far as you could see. We felt like change definitely was going to come, and it did.”

Five years later on, whatever altered once again. Ali can remember knowing of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Someone brought a transistor radio sharing the news. People were sobbing honestly in the dining establishment.

During and after the taking place 1968 D.C. riots, which fixated the U Street and 14th Street passages, Ben’s was allowed to remain open as a safe harbor supplying food and shelter.
“Sadness turned into frustration, and frustration turned into anger,” she states. “We literally destroyed that community. It was a painful thing to watch.”

‘I love the banking industry’

Ali’s origin story all returns to banking. She still has an Industrial Bank account number with 3 numbers. “When I started at Industrial Bank, there were no numbers; it was alphabetical,” she states.

Industrial has actually been at its initial area for 86 years and counting—run by just one household for that whole time. Ali is profoundly happy, understanding a thing or more about the significance of being a longstanding neighborhood pillar.

“I love the banking industry and the work they do in the communities they serve,” she states. “We couldn’t make it without our banks.”

Khalil Garriott is senior editor at ABA Banking Journal.

Photos by Karen Martin and Elia Seba.


A news media journalist always on the go, I've been published in major publications including VICE, The Atlantic, and TIME.

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