Forgotten Successful Black American Leaders

Forgotten Successful Black American Leaders

William FedererBy William Federer6 Minutes

American history has many inspiring stories of notable Black American entrepreneurs. Here are just a few.

Reginald F. Lewis (1942-1993) graduated from Harvard Law School, and in 1983 founded the venture capital firm TLC Group L.P.

He bought the home sewing pattern business McCall Pattern Company for $22.5 million, and then sold it three years later for $65 million.

In 1987, he bought Beatrice International Foods for $985 million and renamed it TLC Beatrice International; the snack food, beverage, and grocery store conglomerate became the largest, black-owned and -managed business in the country.

In that same year, the company reported a revenue of $1.8 billion, making it the first black-owned company to have more than $1 billion annual sales.

In the 1980s, Lewis was considered the richest African-American man in the 1980s, and in 1992, was listed on the Forbes 400.

Reginald Lewis donated millions of dollars each year to homeless shelters, neighborhood churches, and charitable institutions. He left the challenge: “Keep going, no matter what.”

Charles Clinton Spaulding (1874-1952), Aaron McDuffie Moore (1863-1923), and JOHN MERRICK (1859-1919) together founded the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1898 – the now-oldest and largest African-American life insurance company in the United States. The company still exists, with assets of $162 million.

At the time of the company’s founding in 1898, Durham, North Carolina, was referred to as “Black Wall Street” for the economic successes blacks were having in business.

Samuel T. Wilcox went from a boat steward on the Ohio River to building a high-quality wholesale and retail grocery business in Cincinnati in the 1850s. He also founded a pickling and preserving business. Wilcox had commercial links and markets in New York, New Orleans, Boston and Baltimore.

He only sold premium-quality goods, such as hams, dried fruit, sugar, and soaps, which attracted the most affluent customers.

He started business with $25,000 and made nearly $140,000 in annual sales, which equates to around $4.2 million in today’s money.

Isaac Myers (1835-1891) was an influential figure in creating one of the first African American trade unions.

It began after the Civil War when 1,000 black ship caulkers lost employment in Baltimore.

Myers organized them into the Colored Caulkers Trade Union Society.

As other black workers faced opposition, he helped establish the Colored National Labor Union. Following his term as its president, he was succeeded by Frederick Douglass.

Frederick Patterson (1871-1932) worked with his father, Charles Richard Patterson, who had founded a carriage business, C.R. Patterson & Son Company. After his father’s death, Frederick Patterson developed the Patterson-Greenfield car, making him the first African-American to manufacture cars.

Being in direct competition with Henry Ford’s Model T, he later converted his business to the Greenfield Bus Body Company.

Arthur G. Gaston (1892-1996) established numerous businesses in Birmingham, Alabama.

He first started a funeral home, and then a burial insurance company (the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company).

He founded Citizens Savings and Loan Association, the A.G. Gaston Construction Company, and a financial institution (CFS Bancshares).

In the 1960s, Gaston was the leading employer of blacks in Alabama, and one of the richest black men in America.

John H. Johnson (1918-2005) used a $500 loan borrowed against his mother’s furniture to found Johnson Publishing Company.

He published The Negro Digest, in the style of the Reader’s Digest, then Ebony and Jet magazines.

In 1982, Johnson became the first African-American to appear on Forbes 400.

Johnson Publishing Company has grown to employ over 2,600 people with sales of nearly $400 million.

Johnson stated:

“To succeed, one must be creative and persistent.”

“Hard work, dedication, and perseverance will overcome almost any prejudice and open almost every door.”

“If you can somehow think and dream of success in small steps, every time you make a step, every time you accomplish a small goal, it gives you confidence to go on from there.”

“When I see a barrier, I cry and I curse, and then I get a ladder and climb over it.”

“You spend so much time in your profession it ought to be something you love.”

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

More from the Black Leaders of Faith special feature.