Entrepreneurship is a cornerstone of American culture, but history books too often omit the important contributions of minorities and women. In honor of Black History Month, Stacker spotlights 50 black entrepreneurs who have had a lasting influence on business — and, often in the process, on civil rights — from the Revolutionary War to today.
The abrupt end of slavery in 1865 after the end of the Civil War freed around 4 million people but left them with no clear trajectory. Black Codes granted those released the right to sue and marry, but stipulated other unbalanced rules, such as preventing them from serving on juries or state militias.
During the Reconstruction era, which lasted until 1867, the government sought to alleviate the fallout from slavery and integrate African Americans into society. But white business owners withdrew from black customers and prevented African Americans from participate in the industrial sector, refusing to hire black workers for white-collar jobs. Around the 1880s, Jim Crow Laws controlled the South and became the new slavery. And the United States Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson of 1896, ruled that states could legally require racial segregation that kept whites and blacks separate but (barely) equal.
From this system was born the need for companies willing to serve marginalized African American customers. Also known as the “dual-purpose dollar,” this era marked the modern birth of Black American entrepreneurship: an independent and empowering economic and social system by which Black businesses served, patronized, and created jobs for their own communities. Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League of 1900 (later the National Business League in 1966) promoted these black businesses, many of which are featured in this gallery. Black-owned businesses doubled in less than two decades between 1900 and 1914, from 20,000 to 40,000, according to the NNBL. These businesses ranged from funeral directors and pharmacies to retail merchants.
In 1927, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover organized a Black Business Division to help businesses attract black consumers. As the entire business sector stagnated during the Great Depression of 1929 to 1939, black workers were disproportionately affected by being the “first dismissed and last hiredand small businesses were forced to close when unemployed customers had no money to spend. As the United States prepared for World War II, the Black Affairs Division worked with black-owned businesses to secure defense contracts (largely to no avail), and in 1953 President Eisenhower had dissolved the division. Then, as the war effort began, black people left their own neighborhoods to seek larger industrial and manufacturing jobs in citieswho, in turn, were left without at the end of World War II.
Despite the inroads made by the work of the civil rights movement in the decades that followed, big business largely ignored black consumers and rarely made inroads hiring blacks for leadership positions. But in the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson created the Office of Economic Opportunity within the Small Business Administration to leverage black entrepreneurship against America’s war on poverty. So the president Richard Nixon created the Office of Minority Businesses to help advance civil rights while defusing racial tensions.
In the 1970s, civil rights expanded further, federal programs encouraged minority businesses, and monetary assistance (from loans to grants) to black businesses also increased – and the walls began to fall. This time, the rise of many of the successful and pioneering black business leaders on this list made the American Dream a reality. Earl G. Graves Sr. first published Black Enterprise in 1970, a magazine that has since become the primary resource for potential or current black business owners. In 1979, Sheila and Robert Johnson created BET, a pioneer in black media and lifestyle, and the two became the first black billionaires after selling to Viacom in 2001. In 1986, Oprah Winfrey launched Harpo Studios, which produced some of today’s most popular talk shows. and contributing to Oprah’s individual net worth of over $2 billion.
Through all the barricades to advancement and bold steps forward, Black-owned businesses in the United States today represent billions in revenue and employ thousands of people.
You might also like: 50 Black Athletes Who Transformed American Sport