To celebrate Black History Month, we are highlighting historical examples of people of African descent who have managed to build wealth and successful businesses. These inspiring events and individuals made a difference and changed the narrative of black wealth ownership and creation. They help us better understand the type of economic empowerment that can be achieved with the support of community and strategic thinking. These past events and personalities continue to inspire us today and into the future.
Tulsa — Black Wall Street
Most of Tulsa’s 10,000 Black residents lived in a neighborhood called Greenwood, which included a thriving business district sometimes referred to as the Black Wall Street. African-Americans came together, on land bought from O. W. Gurly, a wealthy African American land-owner and created a community. The community was made up of professionals such as lawyers, doctors and many business owners. According to an article written by Benjamin Powers titled, “The Power of a Dollar and Rebuilding Black Wall Street,” he mentions that “a dollar would circulate 19 times before leaving the community.” This was a testament to the strong sense of community and business sense in Greenwood. There were successful banks, schools, churches and theaters.
The incident that usurped this burgeoning district occurred on May 31, 1921. Dick Rowland, a 19-year-old shoeshiner, was accused of sexually assaulting Sarah Page, a 17-year-old elevator operator. No one knows exactly what happened that day; it’s widely suggested that it was a simple misunderstanding where Rowland tripped over Page and stepped on her foot, causing her to scream. The cops were called, and this set off a chain of events that would become one of America’s darkest memories. The community was burnt and many killed in the tragic Tulsa Race Riots of 1921.
2. Madam C. J. Walker
Madam C. J. Walker (1867–1919) was a successful black businesswoman in the late 1800s and early 1900s, becoming the first black woman millionaire in America. She made her fortune thanks to her homemade line of hair care products for black women — employing up to 20,000 sales agents and opening an eponymous manufacturing company in Indianapolis in 1910. She was inspired to create her hair products after an experience with hair loss, which led to the creation of the “Walker system” of hair care. A talented entrepreneur with a knack for self-promotion, Walker built a business empire, at first selling products directly to black women, then employing other black women to hand-sell her wares. Madam C. J. Walker used her fortune to fund scholarships for women at the Tuskegee Institute and donated large parts of her wealth to the NAACP, the black YMCA and other charities. Although the company closed in 1981, the original brand still lives on. In 2013, Sundial Brands — the company that owns popular hair-care labels like Shea Moisture, purchased Madam C.J. Walker Enterprises. The company relaunched the brand as Madam C.J. Walker Beauty Culture with the consent of her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles. The products are still available today. Her life and business was recently made into a Netflix mini-series titled “Self Made” in which she was portrayed by Academy Award winning actress Octavia Spencer.
3. Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker (1864–1934) was grand secretary of the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization dedicated to the social and financial advancement of African Americans. She created a bank, a newspaper and encouraged black fostered black entrepreneurialism. She was born Maggie Lena Draper in Richmond Virginia to Elizabeth Draper who was formerly enslaved. Walker’s biological father was Eccles Cuthbert, an Irish American who had met Elizabeth’s mother on the estate she worked as a Cook. Walker trained as a teacher and in 1886 left her teaching job, at which point she became more active within the Independent Order of St. Luke, an organization dedicated to the social and financial advancement of African Americans. In 1899, Walker became the grand secretary of the organization — a position that she would hold for the rest of her life.
During her tenure, she established a small community insurance company for women and, in 1903, founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, making both fiscal and gender history. The bank was a powerful tool for black self-help in the Jim Crow South. The bank also taught the importance of having savings to black children by giving out small grants that encouraged them to save. In an address to the St. Luke Annual Convention in 1901, Walker said “let us have a bank that will take nickels and turn them into dollars.” In addition to her practices of economic empowerment, she emphasized education, civic engagement, and gender equality as the path towards racial justice during the Jim Crow era.
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