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