By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
Despite poverty and disparities of varying kinds, the 47.8 million African-Americans have a $1 trillion consumer and income footprint, according to a recent Nielsen survey.
“At 47.8 million strong and a buying power that’s on par with many countries’ gross domestic products, African-Americans continue to outpace spending nationally,” said Cheryl Grace, Nielsen’s Senior Vice President of Community Alliances and Consumer Engagement and co-creator of the DIS Report.
But how this capacity was attained is due to resistance to historic barriers.
Before the first shot was fired to begin the U.S. Civil War, enslaved Blacks were the most valuable commodity in the nation.
Ninety percent of the 4.4 million Blacks in America at that time were not free, and lived and worked in the southern region of the country.
They were valued for the millions in income and profits from agricultural products, building and maintaining infrastructure that were provided by their free labor.
Plantation owners were not the only ones who benefitted. States, firms distributing the goods or administering the transactions, and educational institutions did too.
Laws were created in Virginia and other states to restrict the movement of enslaved Blacks and reinforce the use of slave labor and the ability of free Blacks to own property and operate businesses.
But resistance from enslaved and freed Blacks to such barriers was common.
According to an article in the Business History Review entitled “Black-owned businesses in the South, 1790-1880” by Loren Schweninger, those Blacks in the Upper South, including Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina “emerged from quite different circumstances than in the lower states economically.”
Many of the enslaved Blacks freed following the American Revolution were predominately dark-skinned, possessed few skills, were illiterate and struggled to survive physically.
In the lower South, as the 19th century opened, there was an expansion of Black skilled artisans and others establishing businesses and owning property.
They were deemed quasi-businessmen, operating small Blacksmith shops, cooperages, or barbering establishments.
Baltimore Blacksmith Jacob Guillard built a comfortable trade between 1796 and 1806. But he lost property after signing a $510 note to acquire his enslaved son and ran away to the North.
Alexandria, Virginia builder Thomas Braddock hired several apprentices in his house construction business between 1812-1829, acquiring and building several rental houses in the process.
Norfolk carpenter Cuddy Dunn, and Lynchburg wheelwright Archer Cooper were among the few men who were able to establish and sustain small businesses in their communities during this colonial period.
“In the upper states before 1840, persons of mixed racial origin fared even better,” the paper said.
The two largest Black farmers in Virginia, Priscilla Ivey and Frankey Miles had cohabitated with white slaveowners.
Richmond bookkeeper Christopher MacPherson was emancipated by his owner and given assistance.
Despite reluctance from whites, slave ownership by Blacks existed.
A generation after his death in the mid-1840s, Craven County residents recall freedman John Carruthers Stanly, as a prosperous businessman in North Carolina. Born shortly before the American Revolution, the son of John Wright Stanly, a white merchant-shipper, and an African-born Ibo woman, Stanly received an education and opened a barbershop while still in bondage.
By the time he was emancipated by his owners, he had a reputation as an astute businessman. During the early 1800s, he turned his barbershop over to two enslaved Blacks who entered real estate to sell homes and other enslaved Blacks.
By the late 1820s, he owned three cotton and turpentine plantations, several rental houses in New Bern, and 163 enslaved Blacks. His total assets exceeded $68,000.
In rural areas, the internal slave economy involved raising vegetables, staple crops, or livestock, and trading them with the master or a merchant.
The “domestic” or internal” slave trade took place between Blacks on different plantations, enslaved Blacks and their masters, or whites and free Blacks.
Cash rarely changed hands. Bartering of “regional currencies,” such as cloth, cowrie shells, or iron bars was common.
In South Carolina, in the 1840s, “Negroes had every other Saturday off,” and showed off horses, hogs, or cotton cultivated for themselves for the market as their masters do.”
The price of buying slaves was high, so owners hired out their bondmen for profits ranging from 10 to 20 percent of the enslaved Black’s price per year.
Once the principle of slave wages was established, some of the most highly skilled and talented Blacks could hire themselves out, negotiating contracts, making their living arrangements, and paying their masters a specified amount, usually on a semi-annual or annual basis.
After Emancipation and during Reconstruction, the Black church and families began to create fraternal lodges and other benevolent groups as the nucleus for future business development.
Jim Crow commercial and residential segregation inspired the newly freed African-Americans to establish commercial enterprises in the “colored sections” of locales.
Also, white banks were not interested in financing a Black economic class to rival theirs effectively.
Blacks resisted this weaponized economic scheme by harnessing and restricting their growing wealth to the “colored sections.”
Cooperative Black merchants, craftsmen, professionals, and benevolent groups relied on banks they directly supported to reinvest in their enterprises.
Educational institutions such as Hampton Institute, Virginia Union, and Tuskegee Institute trained the newly freed populous in vocational and professional careers.
Reconstruction saw the first elected Black officials who secured some public support investment for education and other areas.
Memphis, Tennessee was the base for freedman Robert Reed Church (1839-1912), who became the South’s first Black millionaire. He made his wealth in city real estate after Memphis became depopulated by the yellow fever epidemic. He founded the city’s first Black-owned bank, Solvent Savings Bank and Trust, ensuring that the Black community could get loans to establish businesses. He was deeply involved in local and national Republican politics and directed patronage to the Black community.
The National Negro Business League, promoted by Tuskegee College president Booker T. Washington, opened over 600 chapters in cities with significant Black populations.
Historian Juliet Walker calls 1900-1930 the “Golden age of Black business.” According to the National Negro Business League, the number of Black-owned businesses doubled from 20,000 in 1900 and 40,000 in 1914.
There were 450 undertakers in 1900 and, rising to 1000.
Drugstores rose from 250 to 695. Local retail merchants – most of them quite small – jumped from 10,000 to 25,000.
The largest were insurance companies, such as the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company because white ones would not sell policies to Black firms or families.
The League gave birth to the business “associations” in banking, the Black press, funeral directors, lawyers, insurance, retail, real estate, and finance.
Recently the nation observed the centennial of the destruction of the Black Business district of Tulsa, Oklahoma by white mobs. It was called Black Wall Street where enterprising Blacks created wealth and ownership.
Other urban centers with large Black populations including Norfolk, Portsmouth, Hampton, and rural Princess Anne County (Virginia Beach) boasted of such enclaves.
P.B. Young, Sr., founding publisher of today’s New Journal and Guide newspaper, was often referred to as the “Dean of the Negro Press.” Young, born in Littleton, North Carolina learned about the newspaper business in his youth from his father, Winfield Young. He ran the “True Reformer.”
P.B. Young, Jr. moved to Norfolk to edit The Gideon Safe Lodge, a fraternal publication that began in 1900. In 1907, he purchased and renamed it The Journal and Guide.
For many decades the GUIDE was the most widely distributed, and influential Black newspaper in the South. At one time it was the single largest Black employer of Black manpower in the South.
The GUIDE continues today and at 123-years-old is a member of the National Newspaper Publisher Associated (NNPA), created in 1940 to empower hundreds of Black newspapers across the country.
Johnson Publishing was founded in November 1942 by African-American businessman John H. Johnson. It was headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. His publications, the monthly Ebony and weekly Jet, “forever changed the popular representation of African-Americans.”
WWII transformed the nation into the world’s arsenal to fight Axis powers in Europe and the Pacific. Despite efforts to bar them, millions of Black men and women were hired by the war industry.
After WWII Black veterans armed with the G.I. Bill and a determination to challenge and resist Jim Crow fueled the continued growth of the Black professional and business class in all commercial sectors to this day.
This economic clout powered the Civil Rights Movement which pushed for economic and social inclusion, via laws and practice.
Along with Black publications, Motown Records amplified Black ownership in the lucrative recording industry, displaying the varied music genres of African-Americans.