July 16, 2021
Making Our Own Way
African American Entrepreneurship
A black-owned grocery story, Harlem, New York, undated
Entrepreneurship has always been at the heart of the African American experience. Stories of black entrepreneurs date back to the period of enslavement. In his interview for The HistoryMakers archives, oncologist Dr. Harold Freeman spoke of how his ancestor earned enough money to purchase his own freedom and that of his family: “He was a skilled carpenter… so skilled, that the slave owner allowed him to work off plantation… and earn money, half of which the slave owner let him keep… And he bought his freedom in 1838 in Raleigh, North Carolina… for $3,000… he called himself ‘Freeman’ …that's how I got my own name… Now the slave then was working full-time for himself… And he saved up enough money… it was around 1842… the former slave bought his wife and his four children… for $1500… To have been free in 1838… is a head start… for your progeny.”[1]
Wealth-holding of Representative Leading Black Entrepreneurs with minimum property values of $100,000, 1820-1865.
Economist Julianne Malveaux, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies at California State Los Angeles, explained that black entrepreneurs have consistently faced obstacles: “If we're at the periphery of the economic system, it's because of issues of access, but we've never been at the periphery in terms of a failure to be entrepreneurs… the post-Civil War period, many black men by law were prevented from owning the tools of their trade… In some states you had laws that said you couldn't have more than a certain amount of dollars or… land… those kinds of laws dampened some of our participation, but even still… we have always been economic actors.”[2]
Left to right: Robert Reed Church and his home in Memphis, Tennessee, c. 1899; C.H. James & Co. building, Charleston, West Virginia, undated
For example, in “1865 Robert and Louisa Church settled in Memphis… Louisa opened a string of beauty parlors while Robert acquired a saloon and added to his holdings over the years, eventually owning a restaurant and a downtown hotel… in 1899 used his own money to purchase a tract of land on Beale Street where he built an auditorium… Valued at $100,000 when built.”[3] Church would come to be known as the South’s first black millionaire. There was also the food supply company C.H. James & Co., founded in 1883 in Charleston, West Virginia, which continued to operate and grow to annual revenues of over $100 million until recently with the death of its fourth generation CEO Charles “Chuck” James III.  A relative of the James family, HistoryMaker and lawyer Charles Collins, told of the founder of the family business: “This progenitor… earned his freedom… because he saved the plantation owner's son from drowning… He then worked as an indentured servant… to buy other members of his family… Eventually that trading instinct developed into a company [C.H. James & Co.].”[4]
Left to right: Frederick Patterson, c. 1915; A Lincoln Motion Picture Co. ad, undated;
and Harry Pace, undated
According to Professor Juliet E.K. Walker, who wrote the first comprehensive book on black business history, The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship (1998), the period of 1900-1930 is the “Golden Age” of black entrepreneurship. The National Negro Business League, founded by Booker T. Washington in 1900, reported that in the first half of this period “the number of Black-owned businesses doubled from 20,000 in 1900 to 40,000 in 1914.”[5] This Golden Age saw countless successful and innovative African American entrepreneurs. In 1915, Frederick Patterson founded the first African American car manufacturing company with the Greenfield-Patterson car; brothers Noble and George Johnson created the first all-black movie production unit in the country, the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, in 1916; and, in 1921, Harry Pace established the Black Swan Record Label, the first record label owned by an African American with wide distribution abilities.
Isaac and Fannie Wright and their funeral home, York, South Carolina, undated
Also prevalent were black funeral homes, their success aided by segregation. By 1900, “the National Negro Business League included some 500 male and female funeral directors. That number swelled to thousands through the mid-century.”[6] Theatrical director and producer Charles Randolph-Wright recalled the longevity of his family’s funeral home, which is still in existence today: “The family funeral home [Wright Funeral Home, York, South Carolina] was started with Fannie and her husband, Isaac [Isaac "Bub" Wright]. And Isaac died of influenza… and she ended up running a funeral home, two farms and raising twelve children by herself, and this was early 1900s [1914].”[7] For Floyd Griffin, the first African American mayor of Milledgeville, Georgia, his family’s funeral business, Slater's Funeral Home, has been in existence for 100 years. He noted: “It takes time to establish a funeral business. You just don't walk into a community and… think that overnight you're gonna end up being successful… in the black community… that family generally stays with that funeral home.”[8]
Carolyn Whigham and her daughter, Kara, 2019
HistoryMaker Carolyn Whigham took over the funeral home her father started in 1972 in Newark, New Jersey, serving as one of few female funeral directors: “[I] always wanted to be a funeral director… it's funny… because my dad honestly didn't… want me to become a funeral director, he wanted me to be the office manager, and I'm like, ‘No. I'll learn.’"[9] Whigham, who runs the business with her daughter, Kara, has directed funerals for prominent people like U.S. Congressman Donald Payne and Whitney Houston. In 1953, “Ebony magazine reported there were 3,000 black-owned funeral parlors across the country. Today, there are about 1,200.[10] For years now, white funeral home conglomerates have been buying up smaller funeral homes, keeping them afloat, but “black funeral parlors are less likely to be purchased… there has always been a strong relationship between black funeral homes and churches, which creates a barrier to entry for nonblacks.”[11]
Ultra Sheen ad, c. 1963 (left); and an Afro Sheen ad, 1972 (right)
When we think of black entrepreneurs we would be remiss not to include those in the hair care industry where millions of dollars in revenues have been generated. Founder of Johnson Products, George Johnson, told of the story: “I was… at Fuller Products Company… And this young man… says… ‘I thought I could get this company to help me. I have a product that's been giving me some trouble…’ So I said… ‘maybe I can help you…’ and I went over. And when I walked into his shop, I was just shocked… The place was just jammed… and he said… ‘This is what my problem is.’ …he had a big gallon jar, and there were three levels… the oil, the water and the solids… it… seemed to be a simple solution… It needed to be emulsified. So I told him… ‘I think we can do something about this…’ that's what started Johnson Products Company.”[12] In 1954, Johnson Products opened its doors, revolutionizing the industry with products like Ultra Wave, Ultra Sheen, and Afro Sheen. In 1971, they became the first African American-owned company to be listed on the American Stock Exchange. George Johnson’s son, HistoryMaker Eric Johnson learned much from his family-owned business, acquiring black-owned Baldwin Ice Cream Company in 1992, which he merged with Richardson Foods in 1997. The company, now called Baldwin Richardson Foods, has annual revenues of $350 million with his daughter, Erin Tolefree, now taking the reins as president.  
Advertisement for Soft Sheen’s Care Free Curl, c. 1980s (left); an advertisement for Luster Products’ Pink Lotion, 1991 (center); and an advertisement for Pro-Line’s Curly Kit, c. 1970s (right)
Also in Chicago was Luster Products, founded in 1957, and Soft Sheen Products, launched in 1964. Luster Products, still family owned, was started by Fred Luster, who ran the company until 1991 when he was succeeded by his son, HistoryMaker Jory Luster. They are often known for their Pink Oil Moisturizer Hair Lotion and S-Curl line. Soft Sheen Products was founded by HistoryMakers Ed and Bettiann Gardner, and became the leader in African American hair care with the Optimum and Care Free Curl brands. It was sold in 1998 to L’Oréal. The founders’ son, HistoryMaker Gary Gardner, who served as president of Soft Sheen, subsequently started his own haircare company, Namaste Laboratories. Then came HistoryMaker Comer Joseph Cottrell (1931 - 2014), who co-founded Pro-Line Hair Products in 1970 while working for the Post Exchange. He developed the popular Pro-Line Curly Kit, which increased from $1 million to $100 million in sales in one year. HistoryMaker Cornell McBride also pursued the hair care industry, starting M&M Products Company in 1973 while attending Mercer University. By the mid-1980s, M&M Products’ annual revenues exceeded $40 million.
Janice Bryant Howroyd, undated
In the area of staffing, HistoryMaker Janice Bryant Howroyd is a standout. The success of her Los Angeles-based company, ActOne Group led her to become the first African America woman to build a billion dollar company. She remembered: “I didn't advertise back then… we didn't have cell phones… but location, location, location was important… I had a great address, great walk-in traffic… I liked… finding jobs for people… people were comfortable to tell their friends… ‘This lady can help you.’”[13] Word spread and her company grew tremendously.
Frank Greene, Jr., undated (left) and a B-1 bomber plane (right)
The second half of the twentieth century also saw rise to the “Digital Revolution,” with entrepreneurial opportunities shifting more and more towards technology. As broadcast executive and telecommunications lawyer James Winston pointed out: “African Americans don't have a history in the technology industries… and all these new companies are all being driven by… technology first and content second… [And] we have a rich, long history in the content side... but… I don't see the entrepreneurs in the African American community… on the technology side.”[14] There were still those who got their foot in the door early on, including Frank Greene, Jr. (1938 - 2009), who worked at Fairchild Semiconductor before leaving in 1971 to start a software company: “It primarily was positive… I was one of two black members of the technical staff at that time… I didn't get some of the promotion opportunities… we were right in the middle of a recession. It was tremendously austere in the [Silicon] Valley… that's what really motivated me to… think about doing something different. And one of the differences was, to start a software company.”[15] Greene’s Technology Development Corporation (TDC) provided software and technical services to government agencies, including NASA, writing some of the software for the B-1 bomber, and for the computers controlling the main engines of the Challenger space shuttle. By 1985, TDC had $30 million in revenue, and was taken public soon thereafter.
Charles Phillips (left) and David Steward (right)
More recently, HistoryMaker Charles Phillips who, as CEO of Infor from 2010 to 2019, led them to become the first industry cloud company, and now the world's third largest provider of enterprise software applications. Phillips made a name for himself in the late 1980s as a technology analyst on Wall Street, and described: “I'm in the esoteric software that most people don't even know existed… I was an entrepreneur. I had to create a job and explain why it was going to be important, but because it became important and people were making so much money, they had valued the advice and the firm was making a lot of money… so I became the company's advisor and I'd explain to investors what they do; and I was the guy that for that little industry, that became big later, I just created that role.”[16] HistoryMaker David Steward is also a titan in the tech industry, having founded numerous companies, including Transportation Business Specialists, Inc. in 1984; Transport Administrative Services in 1987, which managed nearly $15 billion of rate information; and, in 1990, he founded World Wide Technology, Inc., specializing in cloud capabilities, data center and virtualization, security, and mobility and networking technologies, providing solutions from over 3,000 manufacturers.
Martin Nesbitt (left) and Tristan Walker (right)
In 2013, HistoryMakers Martin Nesbitt and Tristan Walker began their own companies, Nesbitt starting The Vistria Group, a private equity firm, and Walker launching Walker & Company Brands. The Vistria Group now has over $3.1 billion in assets under management, and in 2018, Walker & Co. was bought by Procter & Gamble. This made Walker the first black CEO at Procter & Gamble in its 180-year history. Walker’s brand Bevel also became a category leader with distribution in Target and Walmart stores across the country.
Dr. Tony Coles
One year after Nesbitt and Walker started their businesses, HistoryMaker Dr. Tony Coles cofounded and served as the president and CEO of Yumanity Therapeutics, a biotech company, and now serves as CEO and chairman of Cerevel Therapeutics. Coles spoke of the quick growth of the biotech industry: “Amgen and Genentech in the eighties, the 1980’s, were the two behemoths… the nineties roll around, they’re still the two players… But in the 2000’s, we saw this explosion in terms of biotech companies that had had successes and brought new medicines to patients. That revolution in the 2000’s I think has really given birth to a more mature industry… These days, biotech companies need a more complete complement of business skills.”[17]
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, African Americans own approximately 124,551 businesses, with about 28.5% (35,547) of these businesses in the healthcare and social assistance sectors.[18] But the pandemic resulted in the closing of 41% of black-owned businesses, compared to just 17% of white-owned businesses.[19] With an entrepreneurial spirit that has persevered for centuries, African Americans will find their place in the American marketplace.  
BusinessMakers: Breakout Leaders
Dr. Tony Coles
In honor of BusinessMakers: Breakout Leaders July, we salute CEO of Cerevel Therapeutics, Dr. Tony Coles, who speaks about his transition from a medical career to being a groundbreaking pharmaceutical entrepreneur.

Dr. Coles has been the chief executive officer of Cerevel Therapeutics since 2019. Cerevel was founded in late 2018 through a partnership with Pfizer and Bain Capital and is a clinical-stage biopharmaceutical company that combines a deep understanding of the biology and neurocircuitry of the brain with advanced chemistry and central nervous system (CNS) receptor pharmacology to discover and develop new therapies.

Dr. Coles was a research fellow at Harvard Medical School before working as a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, where he completed his cardiology and internal medicine training. In 1992, Coles resigned from practicing medicine and was hired at Merck & Co., where he became vice president of the hypertension and heart failure business group and oversaw the marketing of the ACE inhibitor drugs to cardiologists. Two years later, he joined Bristol-Myers Pharmaceuticals, taking a more global role in introducing cardiovascular products, including the blockbuster anti-clotting agent clopidrogel (Plavix). Dr. Coles was then hired by Vertex Pharmaceutical in 2002 as the company’s senior vice president of commercial operations-pharmaceutical products. He then became president and chief executive officer of Onyx Pharmaceuticals. In 2014, Dr. Coles co-founded and served as the president and chief executive officer of Yumanity Therapeutics, a biotech startup company.

To learn more about Dr. Tony Coles, click HERE.
[1] Dr. Harold Freeman (The HistoryMakers A2001.034), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 17, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Harold Freeman details his family history.
[2] Julianne Malveaux (The HistoryMakers A2001.045), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, June 20, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, Julianne Malveaux talks more about 'Free Frank' and economic entrepreneurship.
[3] Elwood Watson. “ROBERT REED CHURCH, SR. (1839-1912),” Black Past, November 19, 2007, accessed July 12, 2021. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/robert-reed-church-sr-1839-1912/
[4] Charles Collins (The HistoryMakers A2011.010), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 10, 2011, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 2, Charles Collins discusses his maternal lineage and the history of their family business.
[5] August Meier. “Negro thought in America, 1880-1915: Racial ideologies in the age of Booker T. Washington,” 1966.
[6] Lisa Rose. “Black History Month: African-American funeral directors as community leaders,” New Jersey Advance Media, last updated March 31, 2019, accessed July 12, 2021. https://www.nj.com/news/2011/02/black_history_month_african-am.html
[7] Charles Randolph-Wright (The HistoryMakers A2006.129), interviewed by Denise Gines, November 5, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, Charles Randolph-Wright describes the Wright Funeral Home in York, South Carolina.
[8] The Honorable Floyd Griffin (The HistoryMakers A2002.030), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 20, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 2, Floyd Griffin talks about his funeral home business.
[9] Carolyn Whigham (The HistoryMakers A2017.076), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 28, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 7, Carolyn Whigham remembers her aspiration to become a funeral director.
[10] Ileana Najarro. “Number of Black Funeral Homes Dwindles Across US Since 1950,” NBC DFW, February 1, 2019, accessed July 12, 2021. https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/number-of-black-funeral-homes-dwindles-across-us-since-1950/6342/
[11] Tim Grant. “African-American funeral homes face their own set of challenges,” Post-Gazette, March 26, 2017, accessed July 15, 2021. https://www.post-gazette.com/business/money/2017/03/27/African-American-funeral-homes-face-their-own-set-of-challenges/stories/201703260028
[12] George Johnson (The HistoryMakers A2003.303), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, December 18, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 7, George Johnson discusses the start of Johnson Products.
[13] Janice Bryant Howroyd (The HistoryMakers A.2020.008), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, February 26, 2020, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5.
[14] James Winston (The HistoryMakers A2012.083), interviewed by Larry Crowe, May 3, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 6, story 2, James Winston reflects upon the lack of African American entrepreneurship in the technology industry.
[15] Frank Greene, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.036), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 31, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 15, Frank Greene describes what motivated him to end his career with Fairchild Semiconductor.
[16] Charles Phillips, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2014.099), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, April 11, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 2, Charles Phillips, Jr. describes technology analysts on Wall Street during the late 1980s and 1990s.
[17] Tony Coles (The HistoryMakers A2017.097), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 17, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 8.
[18] “Annual Business Survey Release Provides Data on Minority-Owned, Veteran-Owned and Women-Owned Businesses,” U.S. Census Bureau, January 28, 2021, accessed July 15, 2021. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2021/annual-business-survey.html
[19] Ruth Umoh. “Black Women Were Among The Fastest-Growing Entrepreneurs—Then Covid Arrived,” Forbes, October 26, 2020, accessed July 13, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ruthumoh/2020/10/26/black-women-were-among-the-fastest-growing-entrepreneurs-then-covid-arrived/?sh=1f0427e76e01