“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Proverbs 29:13
In the 1960s, Negroes fought to be accepted as equals through a well-organized civil rights movement. Black pride came into focus during the 1970s, as black America sought to shake off stereotypes that unfairly associated the community with urban poverty and other social ills. In the 1980s and ’90s, a combination of hard work, determination and robust affirmative action programs brought record numbers of African-Americans into the ranks of corporate America.
As they have at various periods in three centuries of black business history, entrepreneurs have emerged as a dominant economic force in the new millennium. By producing more self-employed people than workers, it is this unique class of business owner that can lead us out of the recession.
Several key moments in history have shown that African-Americans not only have the ability to compete on the same playing field in the world of business, but can excel in virtually any area of entrepreneurship.
Paul Cuffe, a free black man, operated a successful Connecticut shipbuilding company in the late 1700s and early 1800s. He used his accumulated wealth to uplift other blacks.
Also known as “black country clubs,” barbershops may have produced more business owners in the black community than any other industry. As early as the 1830s and ’40s, for example, William Johnson built a fortune operating barbershops in Natchez, Miss.
Those who believe black women were just standing behind their men don’t know anything about Cee McCarty, who ran an import and dry goods business in New Orleans during the slavery era. She amassed wealth estimated at $155,000 — about $2 million in today’s dollars.
At the turn of the 20th century, two black women made their mark while women of every race struggled for equality and identity. In 1903, Maggie Lena Walker — the daughter of a poor washerwoman — started the black-owned and operated Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank in Virginia, making her the first American woman to found a bank. Most people are familiar with the story of Sarah Breedlove McWilliams Walker, known popularly as Madam C.J. Walker, who invented a treatment for straightening hair that became a multimillion dollar beauty products business.
While textbooks continue to gloss over such essential moments in history, these illustrations of early black wealth demonstrate that African-Americans have been successful business owners for many centuries. Far from being figures of the past, black entrepreneurs are well-positioned to be among the most effective and influential leaders in this century and beyond.