NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

History Shouldn't Forget Black Entrepreneurs

February 15, 2000

Nearly all of what passes for "Black History" concentrates on the degradation whites have imposed on blacks and the agenda of the civil rights establishment since the 1960s. But a number of black Americans have, for two centuries, launched and operated highly successful business enterprises -- a fact that will probably astonish students of contemporary black history curricula in academia.

  • In the late 1700s, Philadelphia abounded in small and large enterprises owned by blacks -- including a sail-making business which made its owner, James Forten, a millionaire.
  • At the same time in Cincinnati, blacks owned engineering firms, brick factories and other enterprises.
  • Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, blacks in New York City owned some of the best restaurants on Wall Street and were known for their expertise in tailoring.
  • Free blacks in Southern cities developed service enterprises, such as catering -- which were so superior that they monopolized the field.

At the eve of the Civil War, the combined assets of enterprising blacks totaled $50 million -- in 1860 currency. Their trades included barbers, blacksmiths, grocers, tailors, restaurateurs, caterers, carpenters and shoemakers.

  • After the Civil War, the per capita income of blacks skyrocketed 300 percent during their first half-century of freedom.
  • Between 1865 and 1892, the number of black newspapers increased from two to 154; attorneys from two to 250; and physicians from three to 749.
  • Between 1867 and 1917, the number of black enterprises increased from 4,000 to 50,000.

Prior to about 1970, research on black activities concentrated on education, institution building and enterprise. Then there was a complete shift and studies concentrated on black victimization within a hostile racial society.

Experts say the shift may have been necessary in order for blacks to achieve equality -- but at a price. The entrepreneurial role models and achievers of the past have been ignored and all but forgotten, social observers say.

Source: Robert Woodson Sr. (National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise), "History of Black Enterprise Retraced," Washington Times, February 15, 2000.


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