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Neighbor to Neighbor: Black business leaders shape U.S. enterprise business leaders

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February, as you know, is Black History Month. Soon there will be a potpourri of articles written about the black culture, the civil rights struggle, and biographies of past and present black heroes.

But lost in all this coverage are the leaps and bounds advancements made by African-Americans in the management of American business. Through sheer determination and grit, impressive strides have been accomplished over the past few decades.

Virtually all peoples in the world have been involved in business — trading, buying and selling — since the beginning of human history. African-Americans are no exception. The growth and progress of economic endeavor, especially in the period since World War I, has been rapid and expanding.

From ancient times, black Africans were engaged in world commerce. They traded with India, China, and other nations, and they left a rich business legacy.

But this was harshly curtailed in colonial America. In the mid 18th century black slaves were forbidden to “give, sell, or trade any commodity,” meaning that they couldn’t legally even sell fruit and vegetables among themselves. Likewise, the young United States considered it a crime for southern blacks to conduct business requiring reading and writing, while in the North, credit and banking was denied enterprising freedmen.

In spite of these barriers, heroic black businessmen emerged. Emancipation was not an immediate boon for the black businessman. Capital was desperately short and confidence had to be restored.

Booker T. Washington, an advocate of black self-help, formed the National Business League in 1900 to help foster and improve the state of black enterprise. The inspiration of his model, and the work and discipline of others are the roots of the explosion of black businesses today.

Black presence in entertainment has been quite extensive, but this has been principally as performers, not as arts managers or businessmen. The pre-emancipation tradition of white managers for black groups has died hard. It was strongly buttressed by seemingly insurmountable white capital and white control of access. Nevertheless, there were early attempts by black businesses to manage black performers.

During the era of the New Negro Movement in the 1920s, many blacks owned theaters and cinemas, but they were often marginal businesses. Only in recent years has there been a new and broadened participation of blacks in arts management and ownership.

Since the 19th century, blacks have been active in professional sports. Tom Molineaux boxed in an American Heavyweight championship bout in 1810. But Fowler started playing baseball in 1872. Howard Drew was considered the world’s fastest track runner in 1914. Professional football has followed the lead of Henry McDonald (1902) and Fritz Pollard (1919). Professional basketball signed Charles Cooper in 1947.

Black athletes have truly distinguished themselves in America. However, except during the era of the black leagues, they have not been active in management or ownership. Before the late 1940s, all-black teams played before black crowds under black administration. Although the period was rich and exciting, the owners lacked the capital to survive once the major leagues began to recruit black players.

In recent years, new patterns of upper-level black presence have begun to take shape. This bodes well toward a fairer shake for African-Americans in sports administration.

Black newspapers are heirs to a genuinely heroic tradition. “Freedom’s Journal,” founded in 1827 by Samuel Cornish and John Russwum, was an early voice for liberty and dignity.

Frederick Douglas’ “North Star” (1847) figured prominently in the abolitionist struggle. After emancipation, black newspapers greatly increased, accepting a role for themselves not only as political voices, but also as social instruments. They championed the black struggle while also noting local church and other parochial events. By 1900, there was a broad enough readership to support three black dailies. Since World War I, black papers have provided its readership with diversified news and information.

The founders and editors of black newspapers exerted tremendous political influence in the black community in earlier decades, as they do today. Following the example of the New York Age (1883) founded by T. Thomas Fortune (1856-1928); the Chicago Defender (1905) founded by Robert S. Abbott (1870-1940); the Pittsburgh Courier; the Amsterdam News here in New York and the national edition of “The Afro-American” (Baltimore) have served black readers with distinction.

Today there are scores of black papers in all areas of the nation. Many are weeklies but a few publish more often. The “Atlanta Daily World” and the “Chicago Defender” are published daily.

Although African-Americans, like West Indians, are heirs to West Africa’s rotating credit institutions, black banking experienced a difficult birth in the United States. The earliest banking activities among blacks centered on the Freedmen’s Saving and Trust Company, created by Congress in 1865. It collapsed in 1874. Nearly 15 years later, the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain Order of the True Reformers in Richmond, Va., and Capital Savings in Washington, D.C. (1888) became the first black institutions. They typified the growing number of banks organized by fraternal orders in the South.

By contrast, the North had few black banks and none before 1908. And, northern banks were not usually founded by fraternities. Lack of investment opportunity, poor management, and the enormous poverty of the black community posed serious threats to the successful establishment of black banks. In fact, between 1885 and 1935, a majority of them were forced to close. Membership in the National Bankers Association (1926) stabilized the number of solvent banks at 12.

Since the 1960s, both government and major corporations have been more amenable to black banks, depositing sizable amounts with them. Consequently, black banks have shown steady growth in both their numbers and their assets. At present, these banks, because of the availability of investments and capital, are providing stronger support for black communities, and continue to help them become viable parts of the American economy.

There are many other areas of the economy where blacks have successfully ventured, such as insurance, construction, production, media and publication — simply too many to describe here.

This can only be good for all Americans.

Reach Alex Berger by e-mail at aberger3@nyc.rr.com.

Posted 7:02 pm, October 10, 2011
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