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The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship

Author(s):Walker, Juliet E. K.
Reviewer(s):Dailey, Maceo

Published by EH.NET (June 1999)

Juliet E.K. Walker. The History

of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship. New

York: Macmillan Library Reference USA. 1998.

Pp. xxv, 482. $45.00.

Reviewed for H-Business and EH.NET by Maceo Dailey, Jr.,

University of Texas (El Paso).

In The History of Black Business In America, Juliet E. K. Walker makes a

magnificent contribution to the literature on African American entrepreneurship

and capitalism. Shattering myths, pointing

to possibilities, and refining our thinking about procrustean racism,

Professor Walker explores perceptively a world where blacks have been much

maligned and vilified as incapable of mastering simple and/or worldshaking

business attitudes and skills.

Writing boldly in her introduction, the author quickly alerts us to the value

of the book: “Beginning in l600s, Africans in America, slave and free, seized

every opportunity to develop enterprises and participate as businesspeople in

the commercial life of a

developing new nation . . . Why,

after almost 400 years do we find black business activities in the late

twentieth century existing at virtually the same level of industry

participation as it did under slavery?”

From the first page of the book, we are

carried through the maze of history to the answer: one that lies not in

when-the-sinner-comes-to-the-mourner’s-bench bromides, but the very serious and

destructive practice of American racism preventing blacks from access to

resources and fair opportunities to develop. Professor Walker invites us to

review and put asunder the old foolishness, the blaming the victim ad hominem

argument, that black business failure and/ or limited growth were rooted in

African inexperience turned into African American ineptitude and lassitude.

Professor Walker was inspired to take up the question of the African American

business ethos owing to the family lesson and lore of her

great-great-grandfather, Free Frank (l777-1854), who entered the realm of

commerce and business with good intentions that got good results. Previous

scholars would have us belief that Free Frank was an anomaly in his

determination and his more than modicum of success. Though he “could not read

or write…he could count,” notes Walker. Free Frank established his own

saltpeter (gunpowder) manufacturing business. He used profits to purchase his

wife’s freedom. In the intricacies of the slave world, Free Frank occupied a

“triple status” as entrepreneur, intrapreneur, and field laborer, respectively

opera ting his own business, managing his absentee owner’s farm, and producing

as a worker. If Free Frank was in an awkward situation, he nonetheless made the

best of circumstances in a world driven by capitalism. In this, he found

himself within, as well as inspiration for, a great tradition of black men and

women in business–dealing with the hard and unfair, but constantly showing

resolve. If the stories of Free Frank and other African American business

individuals were unappreciated by contemporaries, historians have compounded

the ignorance by omitting black entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs from any

serious discussion of the nexus between American racism and capitalism.

The evidence is overwhelming in Professor Walker’s book that African slaves

were not dumbfounded upon entry into America. Despite the disorientation,

they found means of marketing goods for profits to improve their lot. Free

blacks came forth too with similar stellar business strategies and successes.

In the l7th century, Africans, as victims and profiteers,

existed within a market for selling human capital on both sides of the

Atlantic. Africans had great experience in market economies in their homeland

as evinced by their trading organizations, secret societies, craft and merchant


and cooperatives. African women also functioned significantly in trade and

commerce on their continent. Certainly those skills were exported with them to

the so-called new world, and their abilities were manifold in the names of

Anthony Johnson, and later as attitudes and determination were carried over

into the l8th and l9th centuries in the personages of Amos Fortune, Cyrus

Bustill, and Samuel Frances, William Leidesdorff, Stephen Smith, Norbert

Rillieux, James Forten, John B. Vashon, Henriett S. Duterte, Elleanor

Eldridge, and Lucy McWorter. But Walker reminds us that “Race-based exclusion

from credit networks limited the commercial advancement of blacks throughout

colonial America,” as it did also in later centuries. Furthermore there were

enacted laws to strip slaves of their property as they themselves used profits

to purchase freedom for family members and friends, especially in the cases of

slave women concerned about the welfare of their children. We are,

perforce, made to face the fact that Africans and African Americans were

thinking, business-minded individuals with agendas for progress. Any doubt

about a significant history of black capitalism prior to the late l9th century

and early 20th century should be dispelled by Martin Delaney’s report in l852,

one giving an idea of the range of business activities of African Americans.

Also the annual meetings of reform-minded blacks known as the National Negro

Convention urged in l834, in Hamiltonian fashion,

that a black bank be created and underscored that idea again in l847. One

enterprising African American sought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange

prior to the Civil War, but ultimately was denied in his request.

Black women during this period demonstrated their capability, though their

numbers were small: in l850, 438 of a total of 48,888 free African American


were property owners. Statistic revealed that by l860 another 2,000 free black

women in the South possessed property. The lesson was clear:

“Those (women) who worked for themselves achieved more wealth than those who

worked for others.”

Within the pre-Civil War days was the embryonic black capitalism that gave rise

to rapid movement in the period l876-l901, dubbed the “Nadir” by scholar

Rayford Logan (a conceptual framework we must now rethink owing to Professor

Walker’s book). Looked at another way, the era revealed the promises of freedom

as mutual benefit societies and other youthful business enterprises were

turned into manufacturing, real estate, banking, and insurance establishments.


l876, some five million black southerners had purchasing power of $300 million,

remarkable when one considers the depths from which they came. By l900, the

total wealth of slightly more than ten million blacks was $700 million.


Americans had been enterprising enough to prepare their communities for the

“Golden Age Of Black Business From l900 to l930,” as Professor Walker sees it.

She is right to redirect our attention to this era and the African American

business dynamics now legendary black scholars of the period–Benjamin Brawley

and Carter G. Woodson–understood and addressed so ably. Booker T. Washington’s

National Negro Business League was founded in Boston in l900; W. E. B. Du Bois

and John Hope even got a touch of capitalist fever as they adumbrated the

“Talented Tenth” to action. Heman Perry of Atlanta, Madam C. J. Walker of New

York, Jessie Binga of Chicago,

Robert Church of Memphis, and Harry H. Pace of Chicago all proved to be some of

the most imaginative and success-

tasting black capitalists. Mound Bayou and Boley, respectively in Mississippi

and Oklahoma, were townships demonstrating what black capitalism could do in

microcosm. In other places in America, a black started a car manufacturing

company; a company for making black dolls came into existence. Embalming

fluid, hair care, and toothpaste producers emerged also during this period.

Capitalist ideas abounded in the Universal Negro Improvement Association and

Marcus Garvey-led black nationalist movement.

The Depression hit, however, and “‘New Thought'” economic principles were born

of necessity and introduced to black Americans most dramatically by the

evangelist Father Divine (George Baker). Black churches and consumers came to

believe in the “Double Duty Dollar (don’t spend a dollar where you can’t get a

job),” as they established interracial Consumers Cooperative Associations and

other economic projects for serving their communities.

Blacks did much of this without the protection or encouragement of government,

and, as Walker writes, we see in the later years the set asides of a paltry

$8.5 billion for minority corporations compared to $246 billion for white

firms. So whites have had “affirmative action,” so long built into the system

that they sanctimoniously talk of free enterprise ability,

individual initiative, and skillful business techniques as though they were

endowed with them at birth and ordained with clever means of making money.

Coming to the modern period, the story revolves around many confide nt and

enterprising African Americans such as H. J. Russell, John H. Johnson,

Reginald Lewis, Ron Brown, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, Earl Graves, and Robert

L. Johnson, a few of the nationally known individuals who strode on the scene

knowing full well their abilities and what they wanted to achieve. In some

instances, the black capitalists antedated the Civil Rights Movement. In other

cases, they profited from the doors that were opened by the suffering and

sacrifices of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Angela

Davis, and H. “Rap” Brown. The emergent black capitalists of the post World War

II era all demonstrated an ingenuous aptitude for business, despite being

encumbered by racism as when the Federal Trade Commission peculiarly singled

out John H. Johnson for scrutiny on one occasion and Reginald Lewis was

indicted by foes for being

“too greedy.” One, therefore, cannot take lightly the observation of Beatrice

founder and guiding force, Reginald Lewis, that “Here in this country the re is

a certain conspiratorial desire–regardless of what you do, how much you earn,

you’re still black. And that’s meant to demean. But it only demeans if you

allow it.” The codeword in corporate America cannot be “beware of blackness,”

as it too frequently seems now! All benefit from inclusion; competition

fosters better products, markets, and entrepreneurs.

It remains for America to make this a reality as Professor Walker demonstrates

so aptly in this book, a scholarly work that will remain the benediction for a

long time to come on the meaning of the black American business tradition.

The prizes already bestowed on Professor Walker for this monumentally important

book are well deserved. Picayune criticism, nonetheless, will surface, and here

I can add my own by pointing to minor errors in spelling or printing: Herman

Perry for Heman ( p. l83) and Marvin Gay (p. 327) for Gaye. The last surname is

also omitted from the index.

In addition in the category of perhaps asking too much of a scholar who already

has done a prodigious amount of research: a fuller exploration is needed

into institutional–church sponsored, black college curricula, and

newspaper–endeavors to foster a black capitalist ethos and support for those

business activities in the African American community. Howard University, for

example, tried desperately in the 20th century to direct attention to commerce,

even exploring establishing a chair for the purpose.

T. Thomas Fortune, the dean of African American journalism in the late l9th and

early 20th centuries (also both a Bookerite and Garveyite) sought to promote

the concept of black capitalism on significant trips through the South and


Finally, while the book is compelling in its thesis, some may find it

circumstantial in the

absence of mastodon direct and systematic data (many times the hidden,

misplaced, or destroyed evidence) showing that African American businesspeople

hit that wall of racism when applying for loans or competing in markets.

Whatever the pundits might argue

, however, the reading audience should know that no effective discussion of the

black community can go on without Professor Walker’s book as a basis for

understanding the peculiarities and promises of Black life in America.

Maceo Crenshaw Dailey, Jr.,

Director, African American Studies Associate Professor, Dept. of History

University of Texas at El Paso El Paso, Texas 79968

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative