Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.
From the very beginning, black Americans have struggled to make a way out of no way. Faced with rampant racism and discrimination, industrious African Americans decided to do for self, launching their own businesses and empires. In honor of Black History Month, here’s a look at some of the earliest—and most enterprising—black entrepreneurs.
“Antonio a Negro” first came to these shores in 1621 from Angola as an indentured servant and worked his way to freedom, when he promptly changed his name to Anthony Johnson. He eventually bought a large parcel of land in Virginia, where he operated a successful farm and owned his own indentured servants (some of whom were white). He later moved to Maryland. Over the years, he acquired considerable wealth—no mean feat for a man who came to the U.S. in chains.
Cuffee was born in Massachusetts in 1759, the son of a freed slave and a Wampanoag Indian woman. Cuffee got his start as a whaler and went on establish a successful maritime trading business, buying and building ships, traveling the world for work. He dreamed of establishing a black colony in Sierra Leone that would be settled by free blacks.
Born free in 1791, Jennings, a tailor by trade, operated a bustling clothing store in New York City. He invented a dry-cleaning process called “dry scouring,” becoming the first black man to obtain a U.S. patent. Jennings made a mint. An active abolitionist, Jennings used his earnings to fund antislavery causes.
Brown was born into slavery in Virginia in 1800; her husband and children were sold. When Brown was in her 50s, her owner set her free. She headed west, moving from state to state and opening successful laundry businesses. She eventually settled in Colorado, the first black woman to become part of the Gold Rush, funneling her considerable earnings into gold mines. Brown never gave up looking for her family. Fifty years after she lost her family, she was reunited with one of her daughters.
Temple was born either enslaved or free in Richmond, Va., in 1800. By around 1829, he’d ended up in the whaling village of New Bedford, Mass. A blacksmith by trade, Temple opened a profitable whale craft shop. Even though he had no experience as a whaler, he invented a revolutionary whaling harpoon, the Temple Toggle. A fervent abolitionist, Temple was the vice president of the New Bedford Union Society, an antislavery society. He died in 1854 from injuries sustained in a fall at the construction site of his new shop.
Leidesdorff was born in St. Croix in 1810, the son of a Danish father and an Afro-Caribbean mother. As a young man, he immigrated to New Orleans, where he was a successful mercantile trader. Later, he bought a trading ship and moved to California’s tiny Yerba Buena, which would later become the City by the Bay. There, he invested in parcels of land and established a trade route between California and Hawaii. Today, San Francisco’s Leidesdorff Street is named after Leidesdorff, one of the city’s founding fathers.
Most know Douglass, who was born enslaved in 1818, as the famously fiery abolitionist, author and orator-political activist. But in his later years, the renaissance man ventured into business, publishing the North Star, an antislavery newspaper, and dabbling in real estate investments, including low-income housing in Baltimore and a black resort in Annapolis, Md.
The son of a prosperous black restaurateur, Downing, born in 1819, learned the restaurant business at an early age (pdf). (His father owned New York’s exclusive Oyster House.) By age 22, Downing had opened his own restaurant. In the mid-1800s, he ventured into Rhode Island, opening a series of restaurants and a luxury hotel there. When his hotel, the Sea Girt, burned down in 1860, Downing, who was active in the Underground Railroad movement, rebuilt a commercial real estate strip in its place.
Born between 1819-1822 in Rhode Island, Bannister became known as the “hair doctress,” opening successful beauty salons in Providence, Boston and Worcester, Mass. By the time she’d married Canadian-born black artist Edward Bannister, she’d become a patron of the arts—and an active participant in the Underground Railroad. Bannister also helped finance the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers, upon whom the movie Glory is based. Years later, concerned about the plight of retired black domestic workers, she founded the Home for Aged Colored Women in Providence.
A barber by trade, Smith (pdf) was born in Virginia around 1820. He moved to Boston in 1848, where he opened a barber shop. Inspired by the Gold Rush mania, he moved to California, but soon came back home, where he opened another barber shop, which became the premiere meeting place for abolitionists of the day.
Born to runaway slaves in Canada in the 1840s, McCoy served in the British military and trained as an engineering apprentice in Scotland. His family later resettled in Michigan. In the states, McCoy had a hard time finding work in his field; his only option was to work on the railroad as a fireman. There, he invented an automatic steam-engine lubricator. He was issued his first patent—one of 57—in 1872. In 1920, he founded his own company, the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company.
Lee, born in 1849, got his start in Boston, working in a bakery as a young boy. Considered a master chef and baker, Lee opened and operated two successful restaurants in the Boston area; by the late 1800s, he’d opened the Woodland Park Hotel in Newton, Mass. Lee certainly kept himself busy: He also owned a catering business and operated a summer resort. He’s credited with inventing a device that shredded bread into bread crumbs in 1895.
Not much is known about Goode’s early days. She was born enslaved around 1850, and after the Civil War, she moved to Chicago, where she married Archibald, a carpenter. Together, the two ran a thriving custom furniture business, catering to the city’s new working class of newly transplanted African Americans. Most of her clients lived in cramped headquarters and needed furniture that suited a multitude of needs. Goode invented the foldaway bed, becoming the first black woman to win a U.S. patent.
Born free in Ohio in 1856, Woods was known as “the black Edison.” In 1887, he invented the railroad telegraph. An independent spirit, he founded his own company, Woods Electric Company in Cincinnati. He later moved his research operations to New York, where he joined forces with his brother, Lyates, another inventor. Throughout his life, Woods registered nearly 60 patents. Such success brought on the haters: Thomas Edison sued him, claiming he owned the patent. Woods won the case.
Sarah Breedlove was born in 1867 on a Louisiana plantation, the daughter of freed slaves. Hers was the hardknock life: orphaned at 7, married at 14. She worked as a cosmetics saleswoman before striking out on her own and christening herself “Madam C.J. Walker.” Contrary to popular belief, Walker didn’t invent the hot comb. But she did become the first black woman millionaire. As she put it, “I got my start by giving myself a start.”
As a teen the Kentucky native, born in 1877, worked in a sewing machine factory in Ohio. Morgan soon opened a repair business, obtaining a patent for an improved sewing machine. In 1914, he invented a gas mask; in 1923, he invented the three-way traffic light. Another invention: the first chemical hair straightener. He’d noticed that a certain chemical from his machines smoothed out rough fabric. Judging by his pictures, he used his concoction on himself. He later formed the G.A. Morgan Hair Refining Company.
In 1892, in Durham, N.C., seven African-American business leaders joined forces to form the one of the nation’s first all-black insurance companies. Its first president was entrepreneur John Merrick, a former slave born in 1859. After his death, Dr. Aaron McDuffie Moore, a medical doctor born to free parents in 1863, took his place. Charles Clinton Spaulding, born in 1873, became the company’s third president in 1923.
Walker was born in 1864 in Richmond, Va., to a former slave and a white Confederate soldier. A teacher by training, Walker married Armstead, a brick contractor, in 1886. She quit teaching shortly after, becoming active in the Independent Organization of St. Luke, a fraternal order dedicated to improving the lives of African Americans. Through the order, in the early 1900s Walker founded a newspaper, as well as a highly successful bank and department store—all catering to blacks in Jim Crow Richmond.
In the early 1880s, James, a 19-year-old peddler in West Virginia, went from door to door, selling trinkets. He was often paid in food—eggs, poultry and the like—which he would in turn sell. In time, he earned enough to buy a horse and wagon, then a storefront and then, a warehouse housing a massive wholesale produce distributor. Today, C.H. James & Co. is a thriving produce company based in California, where it is headed by James’ great-grandson, Charles H. James III.