We can’t even begin to try to enumerate all of the African 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 business people throughout American history who have inspired us the most.
William Liedesdorff (October 23, 1810 – May 18, 1848)
You’ve probably 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, the very first person of African descent to make a million U.S. dollars was a West Indian native who died before he hit age 38.
If you live in San Francisco, you may have heard Liedesdorff referred to 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, and built a fortune with a route from Panama to Alaska. Liedesdorff even launched the first steamboat ever to sail San Francisco Bay. But his best luck came from a land grant. His property, known as Rancho Rio de los Americanos, was found to be packed with gold. Just proving that making that first million is a combination of hard work and a little bit (or a lot) 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 entrepreneurs and both former slaves. She owned a series of beauty parlors, while he opened a saloon, restaurant, and hotel. He 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, the first such establishment to be owned by a Black founder.
But Church’s greatest contribution to Black business history is the establishment of Solvent Savings Bank and Trust Company, which helped African American people get funds to buy homes and become entrepreneurs like him.
Annie Malone (August 9, 1877 – May 10, 1957)
Once again, the name C.J. Walker tends to come up when we talk about millionaires from the world of hair. But Annie Malone was actually Walker’s boss, and when she struck out on her own, she got many of her tricks from Malone, who preceded her as a millionairess.
Malone copyrighted her products and gained a wide audience with press conferences, and touring the country with her Poro hair care products, recruiting women to sell them all over the South.
But Malone’s legacy comes from creating a same-day service system for mail order. All orders were shipped the day they were received, a new concept in the snail mail era. Besides manufacturing her products, Malone also built Poro College, a beauty school just for Black women.
But one of her greatest legacies was of charity: After she became a multi-millionaire, she helped to fund African American 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 names early in the existence of the field was Lucille Bishop Smith, known to many as the “the first African American businesswoman in Texas.”
The Fort Worth educator created “Lucille’s All Purpose Hot Roll Mix” for a church fundraiser, but it ended up going far beyond charity. In the first month in business, she made $800 in profits, nothing to sneeze at in the 1940s. It was the first roll mix in the country and paved the way for other kits like it, including Smith’s own 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 by her great-grandsons who own it.
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, preceded into the pantheon of African American 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 Harpo, production company and retain rights to the show. But 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 a cable network and magazine of her own.
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 is working as a face of the brand.
She gives back, too. In 2007, she started the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, a school in South Africa for economically disadvantaged by brilliant girls like her own childhood self.