Black Women Entrepreneurs in American History

William FedererBy William Federer6 Minutes

Annie Malone (1877-1957) was one of America’s first and most prominent African-American businesswomen. She founded and developed Poro College, a commercial and educational business focused on cosmetics for black women.

Poro College as an institution of learning was established as a way to teach people about black cosmetology.

Through the school and the business, Malone created jobs for 75,000 women around the world.

She’s recorded as the first black female millionaire in the United States, with a reported $14 million in assets in 1920.

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919), whose birth name was Sarah Breedlove, attended Annie Malone’s Poro College to learn cosmetology. Madam C.J. Walker developed a line of beauty and hair products and is considered one of the first female self-made millionaires in America.

She stated: “I had to make my own living and my own opportunity … Don’t sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. You have to get up and make them.”

“If I have accomplished anything in this life it is because I was willing to work hard.”

“I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations … I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

“I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race.”

“I want you to understand your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves but about others.”

“Its pretty hard for the Lord to guide you if you haven’t made up your mind which way to go.”

Maggie Lena Walker (1864-1934) was the first black woman in the United States to charter a bank. By pooling her community’s money, she formed the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, of which she served as the first president.

Later, when the bank merged with two other Richmond, VA banks to form The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, she served as the chairman of its board of directors.

She stated: “Friends and good manners will take you where money won’t go.”

“If you can read and write, you can do anything and go anywhere. You can ride the wind.”

Mary Ellen Pleasant (1814-1904) was born a slave, but worked out her bondage. She was joined with white abolitionists in Massachusetts to help slaves get to freedom through the Underground Railroad.

In 1852, Mary arrived in San Francisco where she founded exclusive men’s eating establishments. Paying attention to business tips, she invested and eventually amassed million of dollars.

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s work with the Underground Railroad continued, resulting in her being considered the “Harriett Tubman of California.”

Bridget “Biddy” Mason (1818-1901) was a slave who had three daughters by her slave master Robert Smith. Smith converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah, forcing Bridget to follow the wagon on foot. In 1851, Smith moved again, this time to California. Though it was a free state, Smith refused to abide by the laws and he kept Biddy a slave.

When Smith decided to move to Texas, a slave state, a white man, Charles, Owens, helped bring legal action to gain Biddy’s freedom.

After a fierce court battle, Biddy Mason won in 1856. Charles Owens soon married Biddy’s daughter Ellen.

Biddy worked as a mid-wife, delivering hundreds of babies. When a smallpox epidemic hit, she risked her life to care for multitudes who were infected.

Saving her money, she purchased two estates, making her one of the first black women to own property in Los Angeles.

She bought more properties and leased them out commercially. As the city grew, her properties appreciated in value, resulting in her amassing a relatively large fortune of $300,000.

In 1872, along with her son-in-law Charles Owens, she organized the city’s first black church, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, which met in her home on Spring Street .

Being the wealthiest black woman in the city, Biddy Mason donated the land and helped finance the building of the church. She also established the first elementary school for black children in Los Angeles.