5 Great black entrepreneurs every American should know

February 28, 2014

Alfred A. Edmond, Jr. of Black Enterprise, a leading resource for Black business owners, highlights entrepreneurs who’ve left an impact on the African-American community.

Athletes and entertainers. Abolitionists and civil rights leaders. Poets and preachers. Authors and painters. Soldiers and politicians. Every Black History Month, our recognition of great Black achievers seems to run the gamut of human endeavor, with one glaring omission: Entrepreneurship. In fact, each year, Black Enterprise presents its highest honor for business achievement, the Arthur G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference, which this year will be held May 14-17 in Columbus, Ohio. The conference is one of the largest of its kind, annually attracting as many as 1,000 entrepreneurs and aspiring business owners. The recognition of the A.G. Gaston Award honoree is one of the most anticipated highlights of the event. A.G. Gaston Award winners are among the most accomplished entrepreneurs in American business history, to say nothing of Black history. Yet too few Americans would recognize the names of more than one or two of these iconic success stories, even though many of them are as uniquely accomplished as Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie and others similarly unhampered by the barriers and disadvantages that have historically faced Black entrepreneurs.

There are dozens of men and women who stories deserve to be told and celebrated by all Americans, but following is my short list of five great black businessmen and businesswomen that every American should know. My hope is that it inspires you to learn about the others, and to ensure that they are given deserved prominence in future celebrations of Black History Month.

John H. Johnson (January 19, 1918 – August 8, 2005) This business icon built a Chicago-based publishing and cosmetics empire into an international powerhouse, establishing brands including Ebony, Jet and Fashion Fair as household names and touching the lives of billions of Americans over the latter half of the 20th Century. Johnson Publishing Co. is now led by his daughter, Chairperson Linda Johnson Rice, along with CEO Desiree Rogers. Read Johnson’s story in Succeeding Against the Odds: The Autobiography of a Great American Businessman, co-authored by long-time Ebony Editor Lerone Bennett Jr.

Ernesta Procope (1931- ) Good news: March is Women’s History Month, which means more time to celebrate Procope, the founder and former CEO of E.G. Bowman Co. Inc., the first and largest minority-owned insurance brokerage firm in New York’s financial district. Known as the “First Lady of Wall Street”, Procope is a living legend, and holds the distinction of being the first woman to grace the cover of Black Enterprise, for our August 1974 issue. She was also a major force in ending discrimination against African Americans by the insurance industry in New York.

Herman J. Russell (December 23, 1930- ) If you’ve scanned the Atlanta skyline as your flight touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, America’s busiest, then you’ve seen the work of H.J. Russell Construction. In addition to projects in cities and airports across America, Russell served as a mentor to legions of other Black business owners, while repeatedly breaking barriers in the construction industry.

Reginald F. Lewis (December 7, 1942 – January 19, 1993) It’s been more than 25 years since Lewis executed the landmark acquisition of Beatrice International Foods in 1987, creating the first billion-dollar black-owned company (a story I broke as a young journalist for Black Enterprise). He is now truly getting his due, thanks largely to the relentless efforts of his devoted wife, Loida Lewis. Lewis inspired a generation of entrepreneurs, Wall Street aspirants and international attorneys as well. His autobiography, Why Should White Guys Have All The Fun: How Reginald Lewis Created a Billion-Dollar Business Empire, co-authored by Blair S. Walker, is an absolute must-read.

Arthur G. Gaston Sr. (July 4, 1892 – January 19, 1996) The person for whom our lifetime achievement award is named was the pioneer and inspiration for at least two generations of entrepreneurs of the latter half of the 20th century. Named Black Enterprise’s Entrepreneur of the Century in 1992, Gaston built a conglomerate in segregated Birmingham, Ala., beginning in the 1930s and becoming one of America’s first Black multimillionaires. Check out his biography, Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins and Elizabeth Gardner Hines. To learn more about these and other great Black business achievers, click this link to read “Titans: The 40 Most Powerful African Americans in Business—And How They Shaped Our World” by Derek T. Dingle, originally published in the 40th Anniversary edition of Black Enterprise. To see the previous features in the Hiscox series highlighting African-African entrepreneurs, visit the Hiscox small business blog.

Alfred A. Edmond Jr. is SVP/Chief Content Officer of Black Enterprise, responsible for overseeing editorial/content policies and enforcing quality standards for all of the major franchises, including the magazine, television shows, web site, social media and live networking events. He also hosts Money Matters, a nationally syndicated radio feature of American Urban Radio Networks. In partnership with Zara Green, Edmond co-hosts Grown Zone (www.GrownZoneA2Z.com), a multiplatform media initiative promoting personal growth and healthy decision making. A nationally recognized expert on business and economic trends, Edmond is a highly sought-after public speaker and moderator.