The Root Cities: Chicago Takes Care of Business

In Part 2 of our series profiling Barack Obama's kind of town, The Root looks at the mighty tradition of black Chicago's business success.


The legacy of prominent black businesses in Chicago goes all the way back to Jean Baptiste Point DuSable. A fur trader of Haitian and French descent, he ran a trading post at the mouth of the Chicago River in the late 1770s. The Potawatomi tribe called him Black Chief.

Thus began a tradition of black enterprise in the Windy City. Chicago is the home of the Johnson Publishing Co., the titan of black-owned publishing firms that was established in 1942 by John H. Johnson. It's also home to Edward Gardner, who in 1964 founded hair-care company Soft Sheen Products Inc. In 1965 a group of local black businessman formed Seaway Bank and Trust Co., the biggest black-owned bank in the Midwest.

Today's African-American business leaders have built on the foundation set by their predecessors to elevate the city's profile. They include John Rogers, whose Ariel Investments is a leading black-run money management and mutual fund company. And don't forget Oprah Winfrey, who has long housed her media empire in the city's Near West Side neighborhood.

Becoming the Center of Black Business Success

Chicago "has an unusually strong history and growth of black businesses," says David Thigpen, vice president of policy and research at the Chicago Urban League. That history, Thigpen adds, arises from a communal spirit that is rooted in a mix between family-oriented Midwestern values and the old black American tradition of having the other person's back.

Some of today's business leaders have known one another for decades, even growing up in the same South Side neighborhoods. That cohesive mind-set has helped mobilize not only the black business machine but, over time, has also bolstered the city's economy and political scene. Chicago's business leaders played a key role in Barack Obama's rise from state senator to the Oval Office through their own financial contributions as well as fundraising.

The black community is still fraught with its share of troubles stemming from segregation, including high levels of poverty and unemployment. The jobless rate among blacks in the metro area reached 15.5 percent in 2009, compared with an 8.5 percent rate for whites, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute.

Strength in Segregated Numbers

But "segregation, as perverse as it was, produced a very tight-knit community," says Thigpen. "One of the byproducts of segregation is that black institutions grew, and they were self-contained, and some of them thrived. Political and business power work together in Chicago. It's probably no accident that Illinois -- basically, Chicago -- has produced two black U.S. senators and a president, because there was a strong black business community that was able to come together."

African Americans began pouring into the city in the early 1900s as part of the Great Migration. Hundreds of thousands from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee traveled north on the Illinois Central Railroad. By 1960, Chicago's black population had grown to 813,000. (The black population of Greater Chicago now stands close to 2 million -- ranking third behind the New York and Atlanta metropolitan areas, according to a report from the Brookings Institution.)