February being Black History Month, I’d like to follow up on last week’s column and suggest some more people worth remembering.
Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) is still well known, but he fell out of favor with black leadership in the 1960s. “Great Society” programs shifted the focus away from entrepreneurship, self-reliance and family values and ushered in vote-buying government handouts. The message of Washington, who was born a slave, had always been what he called “self-help” through education, employment, and starting a business. He stressed personal integrity. “Character, not circumstances, make the man,” he famously said.
Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute – now Tuskegee University – in Alabama to educate blacks to develop their talents for America’s industrial society. Business enterprise would be the ticket to progress, he felt. “More and more thoughtful students of the race problem,” he said, “are beginning to see that business and industry constitute what we may call the strategic points in its solution.”
George Washington Carver (1864–1943) was another great black achiever. A pioneering botanist and inventor, he devised techniques for replenishing depleted soils and popularized the peanut. He researched, experimented, and taught at the Tuskegee Institute for 47 years. “Time” magazine once dubbed him “the black Leonardo” because of his multiple talents. “When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way,” he once advised, “you will command the attention of the world.”
Carver was a gentle man of generous spirit, a committed Christian who urged peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. “Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater,” he cautioned. “Keep your thoughts free from hate, and you need have no fear from those who hate you.”
One of the earliest American examples of black female enterprisers was Clara Brown. Set free by her owner in the 1850s, she traveled throughout the West, opening one successful laundry business after another. She settled in Colorado and became the first black female businesswoman to cash in on the Gold Rush.
Another black woman named Christiana Carteaux Bannister was a major financier of the 54th Massachusetts, the first regiment of all-black soldiers to fight for the North in the Civil War. An activist for the Underground Railroad, Bannister made her money as the “hair doctress” of Providence, Boston and Worcester. She started thriving beauty salons in all three New England cities.
Record producer and songwriter Berry Gordy is a still-living example of a black entrepreneur. He founded Motown Records in 1959. The artists he promoted are legendary: Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, the Jackson 5.
Gordy started his company in his small Detroit house, now a museum. Later, the city passed an ordinance banning home-based businesses. What could have been a model for many poor but aspiring entrepreneurs in the Motor City – starting a business in your house when you don’t yet have the capital to buy or rent a building – became almost impossible there for years, one reason for Detroit’s long decline.
These inspiring men and women should not be forgotten!
Lawrence W. Reed, a resident of Newnan, is president of the Foundation for Economic Education. Each week, he writes about exceptional people, including many from his book, “Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction.”