Empowered: How Black entrepreneurs empower America
With Black History Month upon us, it's an important time to reflect upon the rich economic contributions made by Black entrepreneurs. Read on for insights shared with us by Dr. Robert E. Weems, Jr.
There are over three million Black-owned businesses in the United States, and Black entrepreneurs make good on the countless struggles and persistent dreams of their forebearers – not just this month but all year long. Their success has a lot to teach all entrepreneurs, and their experiences stand as unique testimonies to the power of courage.
Hiscox Pan African Employee Network invites us all to listen
This unblinking courage is the foundation of the Hiscox Pan African Employee Network (PAEN), whose mission calls for the support of diversity, inclusion, and culture in the workplace. With this in mind, PAEN invited Wichita State’s Willard W. Garvey Distinguished Professor of Business History, Dr. Robert E. Weems, Jr. to give a talk, “Empowered: How Black Entrepreneurs Empower America” at one of its 2021 meetings.
A noted expert in African American business history, Weems has published extensively on the subject, including his recent book The Merchant Prince of Black Chicago: Anthony Overton and the Building of a Financial Empire.
The Black entrepreneur is the quintessential entrepreneur
The history of Black business in the United States is the very definition of smart risk-taking, persistence, and entrepreneurship, Weems said. But this has seldom been noted in historical texts or the public dialogue.
“We know all entrepreneurs deal with a variety of obstacles when they are building and growing a business,” he said. “That means some risk-taking. But when we look at the African American entrepreneur, they had to engage in additional obstacles related to their race.”
Among the obstacles are lack of access to capital, lack of white patrons for Black businesses, and a persistent poverty that historically made Black patrons scarce. Even among the earliest Black settlers – newly freed indentured servants – there was a conscious effort by white business owners to deny them access to three areas where large amounts of wealth were being generated: agribusinesses, the transatlantic slave trade, and mercantile trade of slave-produced commodities.
It’s their response to these systemic barriers that defines the Black business people as leaders, Weems pointed out. Black entrepreneurs have intelligently fought back by putting down roots in smaller, niche industries that don’t involve a lot of start-up capital, such as street food vendors, barbers, shoe-shine vendors, and house cleaning. Some early slaves even negotiated a buy-back of their time so they could engage in commercial pursuits that catered to both white and Black patrons.
None of this activity was protected or encouraged by white business leaders, and the profits were scant compared to white-owned businesses. But, like any determined entrepreneurs, they persisted.
“When we talk about entrepreneurship and how it's linked with the ‘American can-do spirit’,” Weems concluded, “African American business people, from my perspective, represent the quintessential entrepreneur.”
What is the history of Black entrepreneurship?
The true role of the Black entrepreneur in American history should be a point of pride for Black people, Weems said, as it defines the highest standards of perseverance and ingenuity. But it has been obscured by a combination of racist mythology and ignorance.
Myths about the uncivilized, unsophisticated nature of the pre-slavery African continent combined with the ugly reality of American slavery to provide a seemingly airtight case against the resonance of Black culture – including Black business. As an academic, Weems has dedicated himself to removing this distortion from popular parlance.
First of all, he said, Black culture was not erased by slavery - not even by the ruthless middle passage that transported kidnapped Africans to the United States.
“The middle passage notwithstanding, we do see transplanted Africans being able to retain certain cultural characteristics that they had hailed as Africans living on the African continent,” Weems said.
“For instance, musical tradition, religious and worship practices. We see how African American music differs from quote-unquote ‘white music,’ and how African American church services differ from quote-unquote ‘white church services.’ That difference is based upon the lingering reverberations of the African tradition that people brought with them.”
And their business instincts? Though kidnapped from their homeland, Weems noted:
“The evidence suggests one of the characteristics that transplanted Africans brought with them was an interest in commerce… [They] didn't come from subsistence-oriented economies. In fact, precolonial African political economies were based upon surplus production, accumulation and redistribution through trade and marketing.”
Making a way out of no way
The history of Black entrepreneurship is marked by hard-fought successes and sustained struggle, Weems noted. Marbled throughout is a self-generated wisdom that is, itself, a source of hope.
“When we look at the evolution of Black business in the United States, it really speaks to this whole sort of African American tradition of ‘making a way out of no way,’” Weems said.
“Early black entrepreneurs had a variety of very difficult obstacles, but when we move into the 20th century and move into the 1920s, we see a pretty vibrant African American business community across the country.”
“Money does not go out and earn its livelihood and come back empty-handed”
Weems encouraged his audience to continue to think critically about myths that distort the legacy of Black entrepreneurs. The reverberations of those mistruths create real obstacles to present-day progress. But he also encouraged listeners to absorb the unique wisdom that Black entrepreneurs imported to America.
“An interesting bit of evidence that shows that West Africans before the transatlantic slave trade had a profound interest in commerce is the existence of certain proverbs related to the role of business and trade,” he said.
One that he quoted – “Money does not go out and earn its livelihood and come back empty handed’ -- speaks to the importance of making smart investments in the future of Black entrepreneurship. Hiscox and our Pan African Employee Network celebrate that sentiment, and thank Dr. Weems for sharing his insight with us.