The first black men to see North America arrived in bondage in the 17th century and were the property of white settlers. Not all blacks in the United States by the time of the Civil War were slaves, but all faced hardship or discrimination, or both, during their lifetimes. Few received anything beyond a minimal education. Nonetheless, many African-Americans overcame these significant obstacles to become successful businesspeople in America's open market economy.
James Forten was born free in Philadelphia in the year 1766. He received a modicum of education at a Quaker school, but was forced to enter the workforce early to help support his family. He joined the Navy, but was soon captured by the British, who returned him to America in a general prisoner exchange.
Upon his return to America, Forten was hired by Robert Bridges, a sailmaker. Forten worked so hard that Bridges soon noticed and made the young black man foreman of the whole sail loft. Twelve years later, Bridges retired and sold the business to James Forten.
Sometime after 1800, Forten invented a sail that served to better guide ships in the wind. With the development of this new sail Forten prospered and began to give generously to the poor and to abolitionist movements. When he died in 1842, his sail loft business was worth $100,000, which would be the equivalent of millions in today's dollars.
Born in 1856, Granville T. Woods was a young boy when the Civil War began. Woods was schooled until only age 10, but was a voracious reader and enrolled in night classes to further his education. Woods worked several jobs during his early years, gaining experience first in a machine shop and then on the railroads, and ultimately becoming a train engineer.
Working to improve the trains he was employed on, Woods secured his first patent on an electrical device by age 28, and he never looked back from there. He eventually became known as the "black Edison," registering nearly 60 patents by the time of his death in 1910.
Arthur George Gaston was born on Independence Day in 1892. Gaston attended public school through 10th grade before enrolling in a trade school. After graduation, he worked as a laborer and did odd jobs, including a stint in the army.
Gaston always saved more money then he spent. He soon had sufficient savings to open up a loan company. His loan company did so well that in 1923, he opened a second business, and then a third. Gaston continued to expand his enterprises and found new businesses for the rest of his life. When he died at the age of 103 in 1996, Gaston was worth $30-$40 million.
Examples of black entrepreneurship in history can be found here in Michigan as well. Successful black businessmen like Berry Gordy, Fred Pelham, and Elijah McCoy all called Michigan their home.
Gordy founded Motown Records, a company that would expand its unique music into England and even behind the Iron Curtain in just over a decade. Pelham diligently studied in the fields of mathematics and engineering and eventually became one of the greatest bridge-builders in Michigan. McCoy started his career working for the railroads and went on to patent 52 inventions and found a company to manufacture and sell those inventions.
Black entrepreneurs can be found in all 50 states today as well as throughout American history. Their stories are filled with the virtues of hard work, indomitable spirit, and perseverance. These men and women have experienced segregation, discrimination, failure, and even violence. The chronicles of their triumphs are a great source of inspiration and should be celebrated by people of all colors.
February has been officially designated "Black History Month," but the example of these entrepreneurs does not end on the first of March, nor should it ever.