African-American Business Owners in the Jim Crow Era

 During the Jim Crow Era, many African-American men and women defied great odds and established their own businesses. Working in industries such as insurance and banking, sports, news publishing and beauty, these men and women developed strong business acumen that allowed them to not only build personal empires but also help African-American communities fight social and racial injustice. 

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Businesswoman Maggie Lena Walker was a follower of Booker T. Washington’s philosophy of "cast down your bucket where you are," Walker was a lifelong resident of Richmond, working to bring change to African-Americans throughout Virginia.

Yet her achievements were so much bigger than a town in Virginia. 

In 1902, Walker founded the St. Luke Herald, an African-American newspaper serving the Richmond area.

And she did not stop there. Walker became the first American woman to establish and be appointed as a bank president when she established the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank. By doing so, Walker became the first women in the United States to found a bank. The goal of the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank was to provide loans to members of the community.

By 1920 the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank had assisted members of the community purchase at least 600 houses. The success of the bank helped the Independent Order of St. Luke continue to grow. In 1924, it was reported that the order had 50,000 members, 1500 local chapters, and estimated assets of at least $400,000.

During the Great Depression, St. Luke Penny Savings merged with two other banks in Richmond to become The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company. Walker served as chairperson of the board.

Walker consistently inspired African-Americans to be hard working and self reliant. She even said, "I am of the opinion [that] if we can catch the vision, in a few years we shall be able to enjoy the fruits from this effort and its attendant responsibilities, through untold benefits reaped by the youth of the race."

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Public Domain

 Robert Sengstacke Abbott is a testament to entrepreneurship. When the son of former slaves could not find find work as an attorney because of discrimination, he decided to tap a market that was growing quickly: news publishing. 

Abbott established The Chicago Defender  in 1905. After investing 25 cents, Abbott printed the first edition of The Chicago Defender  in his landlord's kitchen. Abbott actually clipped news stories from other publications and compiled them into one newspaper. 

From the beginning Abbott used tactics associated with yellow journalism to draw readers' attention. Sensational headlines and dramatic news accounts of African-American communities filled the pages of the weekly newspaper. Its tone was militant and writers referred to African-Americans not as "black" or even "negro" but as the "race." Images of lynchings and assaults on African-Americans graded the pages of the paper to shed light on the domestic terrorism that African-Americans consistently endured.  Through its coverage of the Red Summer of 1919, the publication used these race riots to campaign for anti-lynching legislation.

By 1916  The Chicago Defender  had outgrown a kitchen table. With a circulation of 50,000, the news publication was considered one of the best African-American newspapers in the United States.

By 1918, the paper's circulation continued to grow and reached 125,000. It was well over 200,000 by the early 1920s.  

The growth in circulation can be contributed to the great migration and the paper's role in its success. 

On May 15, 1917, Abbott held the Great Northern Drive. The Chicago Defender published train schedules and job listings in its advertising pages as well as editorials, cartoons, and news articles to entice African-Americans to move to northern cities. As a result of Abbott’s depictions of the North, The Chicago Defender became known as “the greatest stimulus that the migration had.” 

Once African-Americans had reached northern cities, Abbott used the pages of the publication not only to show horrors of the South, but also the pleasantries of the North. 

Notable writers of the paper included Langston Hughes, Ethel Payne, and  Gwendolyn Brooks

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John Merrick: The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company

Charles Clinton Spaulting
Charles Clinton Spaulding. Public Domain

Like John Sengstacke Abbott, John Merrick was born to parents who were former slaves. His early life taught him to work hard and always rely on skills. 

As many African-Americans were working as sharecroppers and domestic workers in Durham, NC, Merrick was establishing a career as an entrepreneur by opening a series of barbershops. His businesses serviced wealthy white men.

But Merrick did not forget the needs of African-Americans. Realizing that African-Americans had a low life expectancy because of poor health and living in poverty, he knew there was a need for life insurance. He also knew that white insurance companies would not sell policies to African-Americans. As a result, Merrick established the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1898. Selling industrial insurance for ten cents per day, the company provided burial fees for policy holders. Yet it was not an easy business to build and within the first year of business, Merrick had last all but one investor. However, he did not allow this to stop him. 

Working with Dr. Aaron Moore and Charles Spaulding, Merrick reorganized the company in 1900. By 1910, it was a flourishing business that serviced Durham, Virginia, Maryland, several northern urban centers and was expanding in the South. 

The company is still open today. 

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Bill Bojangles Robinson. Library of Congress/Carl Van Vechten

 Many people know Bill "Bojangles" Robinson for his work as an entertainer.

How many people know that he was also an businessman? 

 Robinson also co-founded the New York Black Yankees. A team which became part of the Negro Baseball Leagues until their disbanding in 1948 due to the desegregation of Major League Baseball.

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Portrait of Madam C.J. Walker. Public Domain

 Entrepreneur Madam C.J. Walker  said “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.”

Walker created a line of hair care products to promote healthy hair for African-American women. She also became the first African-American self-made millionaire.

Walker famously said, "I got my start by giving myself a start." 

In the late 1890s, Walker developed  a severe case of dandruff and began losing her hair. She began experimenting with various home remedies and created a concotion that would make her hair grow.

By 1905 Walker was working as a saleswoman for Annie Turnbo Malone, an African-American businesswoman. Walker relocated to Denver to sell Malone's products while also developing her own.  Her husband, Charles designed advertisements for the products. The couple then decided to use the name Madam C.J. Walker.

The couple traveled throughout the South and marketed the products. They taught women the "Walker Moethod" for using pomade and hot combs. 

The Walker Empire

“There is no royal follower-strewn path to success. And if there is, I have not found it for if I have accomplished anything in life it is because I have been willing to work hard.”

By 1908 Walker was profiting from her products. She was able to  open a factory and establish a beauty school in Pittsburgh.

She relocated her business to Indianapolis in 1910 and named it the Madame C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company. In addition to manufacturing products, the company also trained beauticians who sold the products. Known as “Walker Agents,” these women marketed the products throughout  African-American communities throughout the United States of “cleanliness and loveliness.”

 Walker traveled throughout Latin America and the Caribbean to promote her business. She recruited women to  teach others about her hair care products. In 1916 when Walker returned, she moved to Harlem and continued to run her business. The daily operations of the factory still took place in Indianapolis.

Walker's empire continued to grow and agents were organized into local and state clubs. In 1917 she held the Madam C.J. Walker Hair Culturists Union of America convention in Philadelphia. This is considered one of the first meetings for women entrepreneurs in the United States, Walker rewarded her team for their sales acumen and inspired them to become active participants in politics and social justice.

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Annie Turnbo Malone. Public Domain

 Years before Madam C.J. Walker began selling her products and training beauticians, businesswoman Annie Turnbo Malone invented a hair care product line that revolutionized African-American hair care.

African-American women once used ingredients such as goose fat, heavy oils and other products to style their hair. Although their hair might have appeared shiny, it was damaging their hair and scalp.

 

But Malone perfected a line of hair straighteners, oils and other products that promoted hair growth. Naming the products “Wonderful Hair Grower,” Malone sold her product door-to-door.

In 1902, Malone moved to St. Louis and hired three women to help sell her products. She offered free hair treatments to women she visited. The plan worked. Within two years Malone’s business had grown. She  was able to open a salon and advertised in African-American newspapers

Malone was also able to and more African-American women to sell her products and continued to travel throughout the United States to selling her products.

Her sales agent Sarah Breedlove was a single mother with dandruff. Breedlove  went on to become Madam C.J. Walker and establish her own haircare line. The women would remain friendly with Walker encouraging Malone to copyright her products.

Malone named her product Poro, which means physical and spiritual growth. Like women's hair, Malone’s business continued to thrive.

By 1914, Malone’s business relocated again. This time,  to a five-story facility that included a manufacturing plant, a beauty college, a retail store, and a business conference center.

Poro College employed  an estimated 200 people with employment. Its curriculum focused on helping students learn business etiquette, as well as personal style and hairdressing techniques. Malone’s business ventures created more than 75,000 jobs for women of African descent throughout the world.

The success of Malone’s business continued until she divorced her husband in 1927. Malone’s husband, Aaron, argued that he made several contributions to the business’ success and should be rewarded half of its value. Prominent figures such as Mary McLeod Bethune supported Malone’s business ventures. The couple eventually settled with Aaron receiving an estimated $200,000.