Madam Walker
Madam Walker by Theda (None)

Black Americans Who Broke Barriers in the Business World

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Madam Walker
Madam Walker by Theda (None)

Taking Care of Business

Historically, we've tended to hear about the major successes of Black Americans only when they happen on the field or on a stage, and that in no way paints an accurate picture. African-Americans have been making huge strides in the business world, for example, for more than 150 years, smashing barriers and carving out a slice of that great American capitalist pie — some while fighting inequality in the process. Read on to learn about some of these stories of Black entrepreneurial excellence and business acumen. 


Related: Black-Owned Stores to Support in (Almost) Every State

Bridget Mason
National Park Service

Bridget Mason

Born into slavery in Georgia in 1818, Bridget "Biddy" Mason traveled to Mississippi, Utah, and California before petitioning for and earning her freedom in the late 1850s. Mason worked as a midwife and nurse and saved much of what she earned, eventually becoming one of the first African-Americans to buy land in Los Angeles, a practice she continued until she'd built a wealth of nearly $300,000. Mason, an entrepreneur at heart, was also a philanthropist, helping to found an elementary school for Black children and the First African Methodist Episcopal Church, L.A.'s first and oldest Black church. (You can learn more about Bridget Mason's story in "Secret Los Angeles: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure," written by Cheapism's Managing Editor, Danny Jensen.)


Related: Where to Donate for Racial Justice in Your State

Tulsa USA Black Wall Street
Susan Vineyard/istockphoto

O.W. Gurley

Gurley was instrumental in the development of Tulsa's Greenwood District, also known as Black Wall Street, where he is credited with owning the first Black business. Gurley bought 40 acres of Greenwood land in 1905 and, between then and the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot — during which many Black-owned businesses were destroyed and hundreds of area residents were murdered — he owned a grocery store and boarding house, founded a church, and built a hotel named after himself. He also financed many other Black-owned businesses in the district. Gurley survived the Tulsa Race Riot and eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he ran a small hotel. 


Related: 23 Amazing Places to Learn About Black History

Oberlin College
Oberlin College/kim willems/istockphoto

J.B. Stradford

Also known as John "The Baptist," Stradford was the son of the formerly enslaved J.C. Stradford and went on to graduate from Oberlin College in 1896 and Indiana Law School in 1899. He ran several businesses before moving to what is now the Tulsa area in 1899 and, like Gurley, became one of the most well-known and successful business owners in town. In 1918, he opened the 54-room luxury Stradford Hotel, and by 1920 he was the wealthiest Black man in Tulsa, according to the website BlackPost.org. Charged in Tulsa for "inciting a riot," Stradford made his way to Chicago where he successfully fought extradition. Gurley's and Stradford's successes — and the tragic end to those successes — have been well documented by Forbes

Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker by National Parks Service (None)

Maggie Lena Walker

Walker held many civic and business leadership positions in her life, but she is most well known for founding the Virginia-based St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, making her the first woman of any race to charter a bank in the United States. By 1924, the bank had branches in several areas in Virginia and counted nearly 50,000 members. Unlike many other financial institutions, Penny Savings Bank survived the Great Depression and is still in operation in Richmond today. 


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Annie Turnbo Malone
Annie Turnbo Malone by Black History Heroes (None)

Annie Turnbo Malone

Malone is credited with being one of the nation's first Black female millionaires based on the success of her Poro cosmetics and hair-care business, which was headquartered first in St. Louis and then Chicago. Malone also started the Poro College, "the first educational institution in the United States dedicated to the study and teaching of Black cosmetology," according to the website ShoppeBlack. Malone was also a philanthropist, donating much of her riches to universities, orphanages, and other community-based institutions. 

Madam C.J. Walker
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Madam C.J. Walker

Born Sarah Breedlove, Walker started as an employee of Annie Turnbo Malone's, eventually taking the entrepreneurial expertise she learned there to launch her own hair care and beauty line, Madam C.J. Walker Laboratories. Like Malone, Walker was a self-made millionaire and also known for her philanthropic efforts. In 1913, she helped launch the construction of an Indianapolis YMCA, and she also established scholarships and made donations to homes for the elderly, the NAACP, and more.  

Howard Univeristy
Howard University/Kelvin Sterling Scott/istockphoto

Norman McGhee Sr.

McGhee, a Georgia native and Howard University graduate, founded McGhee & Company in 1952. It was the first Black-owned brokerage firm in the United States, and the first to be licensed by the National Association of Securities Dealers. It closed amid the economic woes of the 1970s, but McGhee went on to be active in many civic organizations, including as a Wilberforce University trustee. 

New York Stock Exchange
ablokhin/istockphoto

Lilla St. John

In 1953 at the age of 25 with two children, St. John passed the New York Stock Exchange exam for financial advisers, becoming the first Black woman to do so. It was noted in a news article of the time that St. John had "crammed (for) only two months before the passing the examination" and that she found "capital investment 'utterly fascinating.'" She became a certified investment counselor at Oppenheimer & Co.

Abram Lincoln Harris
Abram Lincoln Harris by Blackpast (None)

Abram Lincoln Harris

Harris is lauded as the first nationally acknowledged African-American economist in the United States. He graduated from Virginia Union University in 1922 and went on to write multiple books that primarily focused on "class analysis, Black economic life, and labor to illustrate the structural inadequacies of race and racial ideologies," according to BlackPast


Joseph Searles III
Desiree Navarro/Getty

Joseph Searles III

After a brief career in college and professional football and a couple of stints in New York City government, Searles joined Newburger, Loeb Co., eventually becoming a partner and then breaking barriers in 1970 when he became the first Black man to be a floor member and floor broker in the New York Stock Exchange. He traded on the floor of the NYSE for 55 years. 

Phyllis Ann Wallace
Amazon

Phyllis Ann Wallace

Baltimore native Wallace received master's and doctorate degrees from Yale University and went on to spearhead investigations into racial and gender inequalities in the workplace and underemployment in the Black community. A major achievement involved her research for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's investigation of discrimination at AT&T, which resulted in a 1973 statement that AT&T would end discriminatory practices against minorities and women. The company also agreed to pay millions of dollars in back wages, wage adjustments, and other benefits. 

Clifton Wharton Jr.
JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty

Clifton Wharton Jr.

Wharton, who earned degrees from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Chicago, broke a barrier when, in 1987, he was named CEO of TIAA-CREF, one of the world's largest pension funds and a Fortune 100 company. Wharton also became Michigan State University's first Black president, helmed the country's largest university system at the State University of New York, and acted as President Bill Clinton's U.S. deputy secretary of state in 1993. 

Ursula M. Burns
Jemal Countess/Getty

Ursula M. Burns

Born in 1958, Burns became the first Black woman to serve as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company in 2009 when she helmed the Xerox Corporation, where she later also concurrently served as chairperson of the board from 2010-2017. Burns holds bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering and joined Xerox as an intern in 1980. In 2009 she was also appointed as head of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition by President Barack Obama. 


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Cathy Hughes
Brian Stukes/Getty

Cathy Hughes

Hughes is a media pioneer and the founder and chairperson of Radio One, Inc. (now known as Urban One after a 2017 name change), the largest Black-owned and -operated broadcast company in the U.S. She also became the first African-American woman to head a publicly traded corporation when Radio One went public in 1999. Like many on this list, Hughes also is a philanthropist — she is a supporter of The Piney Woods School in Piney Woods, Mississippi, the largest of four African-American boarding schools in the U.S., and she donates to organizations that support the homeless and the hungry. 

Sheila Johnson
Paul Marotta/Getty

Sheila Johnson

Johnson co-founded the BET network in 1979, is CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, and the first Black woman in the U.S. to reach a net worth of $1 billion. Johnson has continued to branch out into other areas throughout her life, investing in planes, real estate, horses, and she produced the well-received film "The Butler" in 2013. She's also the only Black woman to own stakes in three professional sports teams, all in Washington, D.C.: the WNBA Mystics, NBA Wizards, and NHL Capitals. 

Earl Graves Sr.
Jason Kempin/Getty

Earl Graves Sr.

Graves founded the magazine Black Enterprise in 1970 as a resource for African-Americans interested in entrepreneurship and investing. With a degree in economics, Graves also joined the army, was an administrative assistant to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, and served as the CEO of Pepsi-Cola of Washington, D.C. He also served on the board of multiple Fortune 500 companies. Throughout his life, he was championed as a supporter of Black-owned businesses and racial equity. 

Janice Bryant Howroyd
Larry French/Getty

Janice Bryant Howroyd

Howroyd started her business, ActOne, which provides workforce solutions including temporary staffing, in 1978 with a fax machine, phone, and $1,500 ($900 of which was a loan from her mother). In 2020, she was named one of America's Self-Made Women by Forbes, who noted her company is now worth upward of $950 million. Howroyd also serves on the board of trustees for her alma mater, North Carolina A&T State University, sits on Harvard’s Women Leadership and the USC Marshall School of Business boards and, in May 2016, she was selected by President Obama to serve as a member of his board of advisers on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.