Considering History: Black-Owned Businesses Reflect the Best of American History

Black-owned businesses from across the centuries offer inspiring stories of their founders, individuals who reflect the best of our community and ideals.

Maggie Walker (first row, third from right), pictured with her staff, opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903 in Richmond, Virginia. It was one of the first Black-owned banks in the United States. (National Park Service, Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site)

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Every August for the last couple decades, the United States has commemorated National Black Business Month. In the early 21st century, a pair of prominent African American professionals — engineer Frederick E. Jordan and journalist and historian John William Templeton — came up with the idea for a month that would help raise awareness of existing Black-owned businesses and help more folks in the community connect to that opportunity. August 2004 featured the inaugural National Black Business Month, and it has become an annual celebration since, one made official by commemorations like that of Washington, D.C.’s municipal government.

Black-owned businesses are far from a new phenomenon in American history, and highlighting exemplary Black-owned businesses from across the centuries offers inspiring stories of their founders, individuals who reflect the best of our community and ideals.

Philadelphia, the birthplace of the United States, was also home to one of the new nation’s first prominent Black-owned businesses. James Forten (1766-1842) was the son of a free Black craftsman in the city and served as a sailor in the Revolutionary War, during which he was taken captive and held by the British for seven months. After the war he spent some time in London before returning to Philadelphia, where he worked as an apprentice to his father’s former employer, sailmaker Robert Bridges. When Bridges retired in 1798 Forten bought the sail loft and turned it into one of the city’s most successful businesses, and himself into one of the city’s wealthiest and most famous residents. For the rest of his life he used that prominence to support civic activism of all kinds, including the abolitionist movement as well as many other communal improvements.

James Forten (

If Forten’s story and business were interconnected with the nation’s founding city, those of the businesswoman Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907) were tied with the nation’s capital and federal government during its most divided period. Born enslaved in Virginia, Keckley was eventually moved by her slaveholders to Missouri, where she met her future husband James in St. Louis. They had a son together, and through a combination of work and communal support Keckley earned the funds to purchase both her and her son’s freedom in 1855. In 1860 she moved them to Washington, D.C., where she started a dressmaking business that was soon one of the city’s most successful, employing 20 seamstresses and producing dresses for much of the D.C. elite. That list included President Lincoln’s wife Mary Todd Lincoln, a connection that led to the extensive White House experiences about which Keckley wrote in her autobiography Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House (1868).

Elizabeth Keckley, 1861 (The White House Historical Association)

The decades after the Civil War offered increased opportunities for Black-owned businesses, although none were free from that period’s challenges and threats. Embodying all those layers was the story of Robert Reed Church (1839-1912), who was born into slavery in Mississippi and ended his life as a Memphis banker and real estate magnate who was also one of the first African American millionaires. Church escaped enslavement while working on a riverboat in Memphis during the Civil War, and soon after opened a Beale Street saloon which became one of the city’s most prominent Black-owned establishments; the saloon came under fire during the 1866 Memphis massacre, and Church was shot and wounded defending his business. Undeterred, he continued to purchase and develop real estate and businesses around the city, including its first Black-owned bank, Solvent Savings Bank. He also bought the city’s first $1000 municipal bond to help it recover from bankruptcy, one of many ways Church became inseparable from his adopted home.

Robert Reed Church, 1903 (Library of Congress)

Each of those figures and businesses represent individual achievements to be sure, but it takes communal support for businesses as well as individuals to truly prosper. The educator and leader Booker T. Washington was well aware of that need, and in 1900 established the National Negro Business League (NNBL), an organization “composed of Negro men and women who have achieved success along business lines,” with the goal of “promoting the commercial and financial development of the Negro.” By 1905 the NNBL had 320 chapters around the country, and it had reached 600 chapters in 34 states by 1915. Robert Reed Church credited the NNBL as providing the inspiration for his opening Solvent Savings Bank in 1906, with a similar goal of offering financial and commercial support for the Black community. The NNBL continued after Washington’s 1915 death and in 1966 was reincorporated as the National Business League, which endures to this day.

A meeting of the National Negro Business League in 1909 (Internet Archive)

With the support of the NNBL and community leaders like Washington and Church, the period between 1900 and 1930 became what historian Juliet Walker calls the “golden age of Black businesses.” For example, the NNBL estimated that the number of Black-owned businesses around the country doubled from 20,000 in 1900 to 40,000 in 1914. This era saw the rise of some of the most famous Black businesspeople in American history, including the beauty entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker (1867-1919) who is known as first self-made female millionaire in America. Other prominent Black-owned businesses in the period included Frederick Patterson’s C.R. Patterson and Sons, founded in 1915 as the first African American car manufacturer; Charles Clinton Spaulding’s North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, for many decades the nation’s largest Black-owned business; and Robert Sengstacke Abbott’s Chicago Defender, one of the most influential of the era’s many Black-owned newspapers.

Madam C. J. Walker (Smithsonian Institution, Wikimedia Commons)

As American society and culture expanded in the 20th century, so too did opportunities for additional forms of groundbreaking and successful Black-owned businesses. In 1960, the young songwriter and producer Berry Gordy (b. 1929) incorporated Motown Record Corporation, which became the nation’s highest-earning business for many years thereafter. In 1987, corporate lawyer and businessman Reginald Lewis (1942-1993) founded TLC Beatrice International Holdings, which within a year became the first Black-owned billion-dollar company. And media mogul Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954) built an entertainment empire that has made her the nation’s first Black woman billionaire and one of the most influential figures in 21st century America. All of those figures and businesses are worth celebrating here in National Black Business Month, as are the many inspiring stories from across our history whose foundational American legacies paved the way.

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