Black History Month has been an opportunity to learn about the histories of Black communities and celebrate Black achievement. Here, we spotlight the contributions of four Black trailblazers whose wildly different approaches tore down barriers to economic equality and created opportunities for Black households and entrepreneurs to prosper.
1. Maggie Lena Walker, First Black Woman to Head a U.S. Bank
The daughter of a former slave, Maggie Lena Walker founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, VA, in 1903. She launched the bank at a time when many white banks refused to lend to Black borrowers or charged discriminatory rates. It was also a time when many Blacks distrusted financial institutions, some having lost their life savings in the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Co. created by Congress in 1865 and run into the ground by corrupt white managers.
She learned the banking business by working as an insurance agent, taking correspondence courses in business and accounting, and spending months studying the details of banking by shadowing the manager of a white bank. To accommodate underserved Black communities and Black women in particular, her bank made small loans, kept long hours, accepted low down-payments on mortgages, and developed innovative ways to verify lenders’ trustworthiness. She is credited with boosting Black home ownership and entrepreneurship in the Richmond area and directly employing at least 100 Black women in various St. Luke’s enterprises.
2. John Merrick, Co-Founder of the Largest Black-Owned Insurance Company
Born into slavery, John Merrick worked his way up from brick mason to business owner, and co-founded the largest Black-owned insurance company in the U.S. During a lull in construction, he learned how to become a barber, and his barbershop was so successful, he was able to expand it into a highly profitable barbershop chain.
He used his business wealth to co-found or help fund the creation of numerous other successful companies, including a real estate company, a bank, and a pharmacy, which provided financial services and medical care both to whites and to underserved Black communities. He was also an influential philanthropist, providing charity and social insurance. He is credited with fueling the emergence of a Black middle class in Durham and creating novel job opportunities for Blacks in real estate, insurance, banking, and pharmaceuticals.
3. Booker T. Washington, Influential Business and Education Leader
Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington mobilized a multiracial coalition of activists, church leaders, philanthropists and politicians with the goal of promoting black progress through education and entrepreneurship. He founded the Tuskegee Institute, a teacher’s college, and worked with Julius Rosenwald and others to develop a program that ultimately built 5,000 rural schools for Black children in the South. He also co-founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL), a network that encouraged and supported Black entrepreneurship.
While he supported legal challenges to segregation and voter suppression, he was sometimes called an “accommodationist” and criticized for focusing on business and education as the paths to upliftment, rather than political change. His contributions are also credited with, at one point, being responsible for educating 1/3 of all school-age African American children and driving a large share of the educational gains of rural blacks, who had until then been in hopelessly inadequate, segregated schools. His education model required the buy-in of African American communities, who donated millions of dollars as well as land and labor to construct schools. He was also a big supporter of vocational education aimed at preparing people for the job market.
4. Cecil B. Moore, Influential Lawyer and Civil Rights Activist
A Marine Corps veteran who fought in World War II, Cecil B. Moore had little patience for racism and segregation when he returned from the war. He took a more no-nonsense, activist approach and was deeply critical of more moderate civil rights leaders. After becoming a lawyer by studying law at night while working as a liquor wholesaler during the day, he used his law degree to provide representation mostly to underserved African American clients.
He encouraged African Americans to vote and to participate in political campaigns, mounting large voter registration drives. He also led successful pickets to desegregate trade unions, integrate public schools, challenge racism in workplaces like the post office, and gain admission for Black children into a college which had previously been for whites only. Despite, or perhaps because of, his criticism of the NAACP’s moderate “backroom negotiation” tactics, he became the president of his local NAACP and grew its membership dramatically before political rifts within the organization’s leadership led it to split in three.