These Black Entrepreneurs in History Paved the WayNew Majority•Feb 3, 2020• 4 min read
We can’t even begin to try to enumerate all of the Black Americans who have made history in the business world. From Mary Todd Lincoln’s dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckley, to modern multi-hyphenates like Jay Z, there are too many people to cram into one short article. But these are some of the Black entrepreneurs in history who inspire us the most.
William Liedesdorff (October 23, 1810 – May 18, 1848)
Perhaps you’ve heard the name Madam C.J. Walker bandied about as the first Black millionaire. But according to Shomari Wills’s Black Fortunes: The Story of the First Six African Americans Who Escaped Slavery and Became Millionaires, William Liedesdorff was the very first person of African descent to make a million U.S. dollars. He was a West Indian native who died before he turned 38.
If you live in San Francisco, you may know of Liedesdorff as one of the city’s founders. He became a Mexican citizen to move to the fledgling city when it was still known as Yerba Buena. He was president of the San Francisco School Board, City Treasurer, and vice consul to Mexico at the Port of San Francisco.
But how did he get so wealthy? He gained esteem as a ship captain, then a master of vessels, first in New Orleans, then San Francisco. Then, he built a fortune with a route from Panama to Alaska. Notably, Liedesdorff even launched the first steamboat ever to sail the San Francisco Bay. However, his best investment was a land grant. Incidentally, his property (known as Rancho Rio de los Americanos) was packed with gold. In essence, his story proves that making that first million is a combination of hard work and a little bit of luck.
Robert Reed Church (June 18, 1839 – August 29, 1912)
While Liedesdorff made a million dollars by going his own way, Robert Reed Church, the first southerner to reach the same milestone, did it by embracing the Black community.
Church and his first wife, Louisa, were both former enslaved people turned entrepreneurs. She owned a series of beauty parlors, while he opened a saloon, restaurant, and hotel. Church encountered anti-Black violence, but fought against it by not only staying in Memphis, but continuing to expand his real estate holdings. He even built an auditorium that seated 2,000 people. This was the first establishment of its’ kind to be Black-owned.
Finally, Church’s greatest contribution was the establishment of Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company. This helped Black Americans get funds to buy homes and become entrepreneurs like him.
Annie Malone (August 9, 1877 – May 10, 1957)
Madam C.J. Walker is better known as the first female self-made millionaire in America according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Perhaps lesser known is Annie Malone who was actually Walker’s boss. When Malone struck out on her own, she got many of her tricks from Malone, who preceded her as a millionaire.
Malone copyrighted her products and gained a wide audience with press conferences. She toured the country with her Poro hair care products, recruiting women to sell them all over the South.
Famously, Malone pioneered the same-day service system for mail orders. All orders were shipped the day they were received. (This was a totally new concept in the snail mail era.) Besides manufacturing her products, Malone also built Poro College, a beauty school just for Black women.
Better yet, another great aspect of her legacy was her generosity. After she became a multi-millionaire, she helped to fund notable Black organizations from orphanages to Howard University’s medical school.
Lucille B. Smith (September 5, 1892 – January 12, 1985)
Ever wondered who is responsible for the convenience foods we buy at the grocery store? One of the biggest contributors was Lucille Bishop Smith. She is known to many as the “the first Black businesswoman in Texas.”
The Fort Worth educator originally created “Lucille’s All-Purpose Hot Roll Mix” for a church fundraiser. However, it ended up going far beyond charity. In the first month of business, she made $800 in profits. (An amount that in the 1940’s has the same modern purchasing power as $16,000!) It was the first roll mix in the country and paved the way for other baking mixes. Smith later created chili biscuits, which were served on American Airlines flights and in Lyndon Johnson’s White House.
But like Malone, one of her most important legacies was education. She created one of the first college-level commercial food preparation programs at Prairie View A&M, a historically Black college. Her recipes are still available at Lucille’s in Houston, a restaurant named for her and owned by her great-grandsons.
Oprah Winfrey (January 29, 1954)
She’s inspired millions of viewers to follow their bliss, but they should be following her business tips, too. In 2003, she became the first Black woman billionaire. Notably, she is preceded into the pantheon of Black billionaires only by BET co-founder Bob Johnson.
She gained millionaire status by the age of 32 when “The Oprah Winfrey Show” became syndicated. That’s because she was smart enough to start her own production company and retain rights to the show. Her business savvy really started to show when she co-founded Oxygen Media in 1996. With that, she went from owning her own studio to full-on mogul with an entire cable network and magazine publishing business.
Now, she’s also the CEO of OWN – the Oprah Winfrey Network. With her vast wealth, she was able to purchase 10 percent of Weight Watchers and has worked as a face of the brand.
She famously gives back, too. In 2007, she started the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a school in South Africa for economically disadvantaged girls like her own childhood self.