American history has many inspiring stories of notable Black American entrepreneurs, some of which are listed below.
PAUL CUFFEE (1759-1817) was a devout Quaker Christian.
His father was a freed slave from Ghana and his mother was native American of the Wampanoag tribe. Having no formal education, he learned to read and write, and studied arithmetic and navigation.
Paul Cuffee worked as a farmer, carpenter, fisherman, sea captain, sailing on whaling and cargo ships.
He built a successful shipyard and shipping business, employing all black crews, sailing to the Caribbean and across the Atlantic to Europe and Africa.
During the Revolutionary War, Cuffee was arrested by the British in 1776 and spent 3 months as a captive in New York. After the war, he helped convince the Massachusetts Legislature to allow free blacks to vote in 1783.
In 1808, Cuffe joined the Quaker Friends Meeting in Westport, Massachusetts, often speaking and sharing his Christian faith at Sunday services.
In 1813, he gave half the funds needed to construct a new building for the Westport Friends Meeting, and also spoke at Quaker meetings in Philadelphia.
Paul Cuffee accumulated a worth over a half-million dollars, purchased a 116 acre farm in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and established the first racially integrated school in Westport.
He was reportedly the first African American to meet with a President, James Madison, in the White House House.
JAMES FORTEN (1766-1842) grew up attending the African School run by Quaker Anthony Benezet.
During the Revolution, at age 15, he joined the Continental navy, sailing with Stephen Decatur, Sr., father of the War of 1812 hero.
Forten was a crewman on the ship Royal Lewis, which was captured by the British. He was imprisoned on a British starving ship.
After the war, Forten apprenticeship as a sailmaker in Philadelphia.
He began his own company, invented a sailmaking device and made a fortune. Employing both black and white workers, his worth was estimated at over $100,000 by the 1830s, equivalent to over $2.5 million today.
He helped enlist 2,500 black volunteers to defend Philadelphia during the War of 1812.
Forten refused to do business with any vessels involved with the slave trade. He became a prominent advocate for abolishing of slavery, serving as vice-president of the American Anti-Slavery Society.
FREE FRANK MCWORTER (1777-1854) bought his freedom and started a saltpeter production operation -- necessary for making gunpowder -- which helped during the War of 1812.
His financial success enabled him to buy freedom for 16 family members, and after his death, his inheritance was used to free more.
Free Frank was the first black American to found a town -- New Philadelphia, Illinois, in 1836.
STEPHEN SMITH (1795-1873), was an indentured servant in Pennsylvania, assigned to work in the lumberyards by his master Thomas Boude.
At the age of 21, he borrowed $50 and purchased his freedom, after which he soon married Harriet Lee.
Smith continued work in lumberyards, saving his money, till he could open his own lumber business in 1822.
His business grew from lumber to real estate and coal. His success was met with being vandalized and burned, but he restarted it.
Stephen Smith became one of the wealthiest businessmen in Pennsylvania, and served on the board of a bank.
By the 1850s, he was grossing $100,000 in annual sales and by 1857, he worth was approximately $500,000 ($13.5 million today).
CLARA BROWN (1800-1885) was an ex-slave who moved to Colorado in the late 1850s during the Gold Rush.
She is considered Colorado's first black settler, living in the mining town of Central City.
There, she established a successful laundry business, in addition to serving as a mid-wife, cook, and nurse maid.
Clara Brown was a founding member of a Sunday school, and let her home be used for prayer services. She hosted the first Methodist church services at her house.
Affectionately called "Aunt Clara," her home was, "a hospital, a home, a general refuge for those who were sick or in poverty." She was quoted as saying, "I always go where Jesus calls me."
A Catholic Church and the first Protestant church in the Rocky Mountains were both built in part through Clara Brown's donations.
She invested in real estate and eventually owned 7 houses in Central City, 16 lots in Denver, along with interests in other properties and mines.
WILLIAM ALEXANDER LEIDESDORFF, JR. (1810-1848), was of African, Cuban, and Jewish descent.
He arrived in San Francisco in 1841 and proceeded to establish a ship yard, a lumber yard, and a ship chandlery shop, which supplied equipment for steamboats and sailing ships.
As one of the richest residents in San Francisco, William Alexander Leidesdorff built the city's first hotel and first public school.
He was the city treasurer, and was proponent of California becoming a U.S. State.
ANTOINE DUBUCLET (1810-1887), was born in 1810 Louisiana to free black parents.
He inherited his father's sugar plantation of over 400 acres.
Antoine married Claire Pollard, a successful free black woman, and their combined assets were estimated at over $95,000, making them some of the wealthiest planters of their day.
They had 9 children, whom they sent to France for education, with several daughters marrying Frenchmen and remaining there. Two sons earned medical degrees.
The Civil War devastated the state's sugar industry, but Dubuclet recovered and in 1868 was elected as a Republican to be Louisiana State Treasurer, the first African American to hold that office.
Taking charge of the bankrupt state's finances, Dubuclet, with others in the administration, successfully reduced the state's enormous debt and restored solvency.
Being lauded by both Democrats and Republicans, he was reelected in 1870 and 1874.
Dubuclet was the only officeholder to remain in office after a coup attempt known as Battle of Liberty Place, September 1874. He also survived an impeachment attempt in 1876 to finish his term in 1878.
Dying in 1887, Antoine Dubuclet was buried St. Louis Cemetery No. 2, in New Orleans, and inducted into the Louisiana Black History Hall of Fame in 1990.
ROBERT GORDON (1812-1884) was a slave who worked in a coal yard in Richmond, Virginia. He was so diligent that the owner gave him control of the enterprise, selling to manufacturers and blacksmiths.
His owner allowed him to have the “slack” – coal dust that covered the yard, which Gordon made useful to industrial customers.
Within a few years, Gordon was able to buy his freedom in 1846.
In 1847, he traveled to Ohio, a free state, and invested $15,000 in land in Cincinnati on the Miami Canal at Eighth and Lock Streets. He hired bookkeepers and bought and sold coal by the boatload.
Soon, other coal yards tried to put him out of business with a "coal war," drastically reducing their prices to undercut his sales.
In a shrewd business decision, rather than lower his prices, Gordon employed mulattoes, mixed-race men who could pass as whites, to buy up his competitor's cheaper coal and stockpile it.
When waterways along the Ohio River froze, preventing his competition from acquiring more coal, Gordon's large coal reserves allowed his business to expand, bringing respect from the business community.
The weekly newspaper, Catholic Telegraph, began carrying his advertisement in 1849 “Robert Gordon & Co. Coal Yard, Sixth St., east of Broadway, near the Canal.”
In September of 1849, Gordon married free born Eliza Jane Cressup, the daughter of a black carpenter named Thomas Crissup.
Their neighborhood was the location of Allen Temple-African Methodist Episcopal Church, founded in 1824. It was the first worship space of its kind west of the Alleghenies.
The church formed the Freedmen’s Aid Society, with Mrs. Eliza Gordon as President.
After the Civil War began, Gordon donated 25 bushels of coal to Cincinnati's Military Hospital, May 1861.
In 1865, after the Civil War, Gordon retired and invested his money in U.S. bonds and in real estate in Walnut Hills, Cincinnati.
By the time of his death in 1884, Robert Gordon's estate was worth $200,000, equivalent to $5 million today.
Considered the wealthiest black man in the State of Ohio, he left in his Will, as reported in the Chicago Conservator:
"$25,000 for the establishment of a home for aged and indigent colored women in Cincinnati. A bequest of $1,000 is made to the colored orphan asylum."
MARY ELLEN PLEASANT (1814-1904) was born a slave, but worked out her bondage.
She was joined with white abolitionists in Massachusetts to help slaves get to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
In 1852, Mary arrived in San Francisco where she founded exclusive men's eating establishments. Paying attention to business tips, she invested and eventually amassed million of dollars.
Mary Ellen Pleasant's work with the Underground Railroad continued, resulting in her being considered the "Harriett Tubman of California."
ROBERT JAMES HARLAN (1816-1897) was a light-skinned black slave from Kentucky whose master, and possible father, allowed him to pursue training and trading horses.
He moved to California in 1849, where he made a fortune running a store in early in days of the Gold Rush.
He moved to England in 1859, where he raced American horses. In 1869, Robert Harlan returned to the United States during the period known as "Reconstruction Era."
He became friends with Ulysses S. Grant and got involved in Republican politics as a champion for African American civil rights.
Harlan served as colonel of Cincinnati's black state militia -the Second Ohio Militia Battalion- and in 1886 was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives.
BRIDGET "BIDDY" MASON (1818-1901) was a slave who had three daughters by her slave master Robert Smith.
Smith converted to Mormonism and moved to Utah, forcing Bridget to follow the wagon on foot.
In 1851, Smith moved again, this time to California. Though it was a free state, Smith refused to abide by the laws and he kept Biddy a slave.
When Smith decided to move to Texas, a slave state, a white man, Charles Owens, helped bring legal action to gain Biddy's freedom.
After a fierce court battle, Biddy Mason won in 1856. Charles Owens soon married Biddy's daughter Ellen.
Biddy worked as a mid-wife, delivering hundreds of babies. When a smallpox epidemic hit, she risked her life to care for multitudes who were infected.
Saving her money, she purchased two estates, making her one of the first black women to own property in Los Angeles.
She bought more properties and leased them out commercially. As the city grew, her properties appreciated in value, resulting in her amassing a relatively large fortune of $300,000.
In 1872, along with her son-in-law Charles Owens, she organized the city's first black church, the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, which met in her home on Spring Street.
Being the wealthiest black woman in the city, Biddy Mason donated the land and helped finance the building of the church. She also established the first elementary school for black children in Los Angeles.
SAMUEL T. WILCOX went from being 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.
ISSAC 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 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.
BOOKER T. WASHINGTON (1856-1915) was one of the most significant figures in post-Reconstruction America.
While he was never technically an entrepreneur, his life's work was committed to advancing the educational and economic position of blacks in the United States.
He authored 14 books, such as Up From Slavery, which continue to be widely read today.
Through his work, he established deep relationships with renowned entrepreneurs and philanthropists, including Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, and William Howard Taft. These connections allowed him to funnel huge donations to several initiatives and programs aimed at educating African-Americans.
He also founded the National Negro Business League.
Booker T. Washington stated:
"Anyone can seek a job, but it requires a person of rare ability to create a job ... What we should do in our schools is to turn out fewer job seekers and more job creators."
At Memorial Hall in Columbus, Ohio, May 24, 1900, Booker T. Washington delivered an address, "The Place of the Bible in the Uplifting of the Negro Race":
"The men doing the vital things of life are those who read the Bible and are Christians and not ashamed to let the world know it ... No man can read the Bible and be lazy."
In the Spring of 1896, Booker T. Washington invited George Washington Carver to teach in Alabama:
"Tuskegee Institute seeks to provide education -- a means for survival to those who attend.
Our students are poor, often starving. They travel miles of torn roads, across years of poverty.
We teach them to read and write, but words cannot fill stomachs. They need to learn how to plant and harvest crops ...
I cannot offer you money, position or fame. The first two you have. The last, from the place you now occupy, you will no doubt achieve. These things I now ask you to give up.
I offer you in their place work -- hard, hard work -- the challenge of bringing people from degradation, poverty and waste to full manhood."
On May 16, 1896, George W. Carver responded to Booker T. Washington:
"My dear Sir, I am just in receipt of yours of the 13th inst., and hasten to reply.
I am looking forward to a very busy, pleasant and profitable time at your college and shall be glad to cooperate with you in doing all I can through Christ who strengtheneth me to better the condition of our people.
Some months ago I read your stirring address delivered at Chicago and I said amen to all you said, furthermore you have the correct solution to the 'race problem' ...
Providence permitting, I will be there in November. God bless you and your work, Geo. W. Carver."
Booker T. Washington's solution of the "race problem" was to gain respect through economic independence - the path taken by every wave of immigrants: German, Irish, Jewish, Polish, Italian, Asian, and others.
Immigrants arrived at the bottom of the social ladder and were often met with racial discrimination. They would work hard, get educated, start businesses, and pool their resources.
As they accumulated wealth and made positive contributions to society, they rose in public respect.
Booker T. Washington stated:
"At the bottom ... there must be for our race, as for all races ... economic prosperity, economic independence ... Political independence disappears without economic independence."
He recommended they:
"... concentrate all their energies on industrial education, and accumulation of wealth, and the conciliation of the South ... (then) Blacks would eventually gain full participation in society by showing themselves to be responsible, reliable American citizens."
GEORGE WASHINGTON CARVER (1864?-1943) was born a slave during the Civil War.
He worked to put himself through school, eventually earning a Masters Degree from Iowa State in Agriculture.
He accepted Booker T. Washington's invitation to teach at Tuskegee Institute.
Carver is credited with discovering and/or popularizing hundreds of uses for the peanut, soybean, sweet potato, pecan, cowpea, wild plum, and okra, which helped to revolutionize the South's economy.
"I would never allow anyone to give me money, no difference how badly I needed it. I wanted literally to earn my own living."
Carver addressed Congress and met with Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge and Franklin Roosevelt.
He was offered jobs by Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, and received correspondence from business and world leaders.
In 1939, George Washington Carver was awarded the Roosevelt Medal, with the declaration:
"To a scientist humbly seeking the guidance of God and a liberator to men of the white race as well as the black."
Carver stated November 19, 1924:
"God is going to reveal to us things He never revealed before if we put our hands in His ... Without God to draw aside the curtain, I would be helpless. Only alone can I draw close enough to God to discover His secrets."
A former slave, Rev. Francis James Grimké became one of the leading African-American preachers in America, serving at the 15th Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC.
He worked for equal rights, was part of the Niagara Movement, and was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.
Grimké befriended many key national leaders of his day, including Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan.
Rev. Francis James Grimké warned in a sermon, March 7, 1909:
"We have just been celebrating, all over the country, the centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, our great war President, and this inauguration coming so soon after, makes it especially a good time to talk about some of the questions which grew out of the war ...
It is now no longer a question as to whether we are a nation, or a confederation of sovereign and independent States ... The Stars and Stripes, the old flag, will float, as long as it floats, over all these States, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Lakes to the Gulf.
If the time ever comes when we shall go to pieces, it will not be from any desire or disposition on the part of the States to pull apart, but from inward corruption, from the disregard of right principles ... from losing sight of the fact that "righteousness exalteth a nation, but that sin is a reproach to any people." (Proverbs 14:34).
It is here where our real danger lies--not in the secession of States from the Union, but in the secession of the Union itself from the great and immutable principles of right, of justice ...
The secession of the Southern States in 1860 was a small matter compared with the secession of the Union itself from the great principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, in the Golden Rule, in the Ten Commandments, in the Sermon on the Mount."
MAGGIE LENA WALKER (1864-1934) was the first black woman in the United States to charter a bank.
By pooling her community's money, she formed the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, of which she served as the first president.
Later, when the bank merged with two other Richmond, Virginia, banks to form The Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, she served as the chairman of its board of directors.
"Friends and good manners will take you where money won't go."
"If you can read and write, you can do anything and go anywhere. You can ride the wind."
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 success Black Americans were having in business.
ANNIE MALONE (1877-1957) was one of America's first and most prominent African-American businesswomen.
She founded and developed Poro College, a commercial and educational business focused on cosmetics for black women.
Born to former slaves, Malone would later develop a chemical that could straighten black women's hair without causing damage to the hair or scalp.
Poro College as an institution of learning was established as a way to teach people about black cosmetology.
Through the school and the business, Malone created jobs for 75,000 women around the world.
She is considered the first black female millionaire in the United States, with a reported $14 million in assets in 1920.
MADAM C.J. WALKER (1867-1919), whose birth name was Sarah Breedlove, attended Annie Malone's Poro College to learn cosmetology.
Madam C.J. Walker developed a line of beauty and hair products and is considered one of the first female self-made millionaires in America.
"I had to make my own living and my own opportunity ... Don't sit down and wait for the opportunities to come. You have to get up and make them."
"If I have accomplished anything in this life it is because I was willing to work hard."
"I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations ... I have built my own factory on my own ground."
"I am not merely satisfied in making money for myself, for I am endeavoring to provide employment for hundreds of women of my race."
"I want you to understand your first duty is to humanity. I want others to look at us and see that we care not just about ourselves but about others."
"Its pretty hard for the Lord to guide you if you haven't made up your mind which way to go."
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.
"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."
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. A snack food, beverage, and grocery store conglomerate, it 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 in annual sales.
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."
What is a key to success?
In 1928, Dr. George Washington Carver explained:
"Human need is really a great spiritual vacuum which God seeks to fill ...
With one hand in the hand of a fellow man in need and the other in the hand of Christ, He could get across the vacuum ...
Then the passage, 'I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me,' came to have real meaning."