Home > Kicking off Women's History Month on PUM: African American Women's Entrepreneurial Spirit

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“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.” – Madam C. J. Walker- first African American female self-made millionaire who in 1908 had her corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh.




                We were 6 months into the year 2000 and, as best I could ascertain, W.E.B. DuBois was not only correct when he wrote, “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” but it was also the case that his statement was applicable to the 21st century.  As we were cleaning fish following a great day of fishing the Juniata River, I asked my son, Omari, and nephew, Rob, why African Americans were not making greater progress given the recent decades’ civil rights movement.  Rob answered, “Our problem is that we got back on the bus!” 

I asked, “What do you mean?” and Rob said, “During the Montgomery bus boycott that lasted more than a year, people used car pools, jitneys, church vehicles, and did ride sharing instead of riding the segregated buses.  Then, when ‘freedom’ came, that is, they could sit where they wanted on public buses, they got back on those buses instead of also fully developing their burgeoning transportation system.” 

Omari added, “It was understandable that, after the hard-fought boycott, people were eager to enjoy their civil rights, to get back on the buses and sit where they desired.  However, once the public transportation system had been brought to its knees, what if the jitney drivers had formed a new “Montgomery People’s Taxi” company?  What if the new company had become of such affordable high quality that it became and remained the leading taxi company in Montgomery as well as other major metropolitan areas?”  Then I noted that the same possibilities for economic development and empowerment might have been lost in the process of desegregating public schools. 

The Supreme Court ended segregated public schools in 1954 and, of course, African American students enrolled in the formerly all-White schools.  Since integration was a one-way street, with no White students moving to African American schools, African American teachers and administrators lost their jobs due to declining enrollments.  They, in turn, sought professional positions in the formerly all-White schools, but were met with racist opposition.  Again, however, consider what might have transpired if folks had followed the admonitions of Carter G. Woodson regarding the need for “Negroes” to control their educational processes (See, The Miseducation of the Negro)?

Given the significant educational disparities between the races and the fact that re-segregation has taken place in many cities, one is left to wonder what would have transpired since 1954 if highly educated African Americans had continuously developed high quality private schools throughout the nation and, at the same time, facilitated the integration of high quality public schools. 

Absent sufficient entrepreneurial initiatives, African Americans continue to ride other folks’ “buses” and, still worse, sometimes get off the “buses” they created.  Consider, for example, the hair care industry. 

Many have heard of Madam C. J. Walker (pictured), the African American woman who became wealthy through her hair products company.  Fewer have heard of her millionaire mentor, Annie Malone, whose cosmetics and hair products company was located in Chicago.  Although there continued to be African American entrepreneurs in this business area, many folks got off the types of “buses” designed by Walker and Malone in favor of riding the “buses” driven by the multi-billionaire “drivers” such as Avon, L’Oréal, and Neutrogena.   They don’t seem to “get it” in terms of patronizing entrepreneurs who best support their needs by way of products offered, employment opportunities, and community development.   

Fortunately, African American women are well-represented in the vanguard of those who do “get it” in terms of the importance of “doing for self.”  Recent data indicate that

·         There are 911,728 African American women-owned businesses in the United States.  This reflects a tremendous 66.7% increase in number since 2002 and a 191.4% increase since 1997…

·         African American women-owned firms across the country have total receipts of $36.8 billion.  The total receipts of African American women-owned firms grew 78.1% since 2002.

·         …A full 96.5% of these firms are non-employer firms, with average receipts of $15,618.

·         The remaining 3.5% of the firms have paid employees, employing a total of 245,474 people across the country with a payroll of $5.6 billion.  These employer firms have average receipts of $718,374. https://www.nwbc.gov/facts/african-american-women-owned-businesses

Commenting on the surge in African American women entrepreneurs, a June 29, 2015 Fortune article indicated, “We attribute the growth in women-owned firms to the lack of fair pay, fair promotion, and family-friendly policies found in corporate America...  Women of color, when you look at the statistics, are impacted more significantly by all of the negative factors that women face. It’s not surprising that they have chosen to invest in themselves.” http://fortune.com/2015/06/29/black-women-entrepreneurs/.   

Centuries ago, one person who fully understood the need for self-investment was Bridget “Biddy” Mason who, “…born a slave in Mississippi in 1818, achieved financial success that enabled her to support her extended family for generations despite the fact that she was illiterate. In a landmark case she sued her master for their freedom, saved her earnings, invested in real estate, and became a well-known philanthropist in Los Angeles, California. …In 1848, 30-year-old Mason walked 1,700 miles behind a 300-wagon caravan that eventually arrived in the Holladay-Cottonwood area of the Salt Lake Valley…” http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/mason-bridget-biddy-1818-1891#sthash.ymSNZJZH.dpuf  Long before the uncompromising and valiant Fannie L. Hammer said so, Mason knew  that “You can pray until you faint, but unless you get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.”  

This month and, indeed, all year, let’s salute all of those unconquerable souls, those women who “don't feel no ways tired;” the determined ones who know they’ve “come too far from where I started from;” those to whom nobody said “the road would be easy;” but still they carved the stumbling blocks of racism and sexism into stepping stones.  They include people such as [1] a woman who is married, raising 3 children, and is the owner of an on-line shoe and accessories company; [2] the first-lady of a church who owns a Christian day care center; [3] and a wife, and mother of 2 who is CEO of a company that assists “boomers” and “seniors” with moving; as well as more well-known entrepreneurs such as [4] Oprah Winfrey; [5] Tyra Banks; and [6] Sheila Johnson.

In direct proportion to the extent that we follow the stellar examples of those who refused to only ride other folks’ buses, we will hasten the day when we no longer serve silently at the “beck and call” of privileged supervisors; the day when we don’t have to jump nervously to fulfill the slightest request of someone who despises us; the day when we will not be overworked and underpaid because of gender and race; and, instead, realize greater self-sufficiency.  As Billie Holiday sang,

“Them that's got shall have
Them that's not shall lose
So the Bible says and it still is news
Mama may have, Papa may have
But God bless the child that's got his own, that's got his own…”



Jack L. Daniel

Co-founder, Freed Panther Society

Pittsburgh Urban Media Contributor

March 1, 2016



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