Say it loud: I’m Black, and I’m proud!
Despite the insurmountable odds stacked against us, Black people still have so much to be proud of. Black history is rich with leaders, visionaries and innovators – game-changers who’ve made tremendous contributions to society and paved the way for Black entrepreneurship to thrive today.
In the age of Oprahs, Beyonces and Tyler Perrys, it’s easy to think that all Black money is new money. But Black entrepreneurship has a centuries-long history of success, which no doubt has contributed to Black entrepreneurs being the fastest-growing demographic of new business owners.
The extraordinary achievements and accomplishments of the Black men and women who came before us are a reminder of the shoulders we stand on and how much higher we can climb. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or not, we all have a unique purpose we were sent here to fulfill.
And learning about our ancestors who lived according to their own purpose can inspire us to do the same. So, in honor of Black excellence, let’s take a closer look at the remarkable lives of three legendary Black entrepreneurs.
James Forten (1766-1842)
James Forten was an abolitionist and wealthy businessman in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was born a free man. He began working at the age of 7 to support his mother and sister after his father died.
He served in the Revolutionary War at the age of 14 and was taken to New York as a prisoner of war after the ship he served on was captured by England’s Royal Navy. After being released, he walked from Brooklyn to Philadelphia before setting sail to London aboard a merchant ship.
Returning to Philadelphia a year later, he became a sailmaker’s apprentice, was quickly promoted to foreman and later purchased the sail loft where he worked.
By 1810, he was the owner of one of the most successful sail lofts in all of Philadelphia, and his sail loft employed Black and White people alike. And before long, he was one of the wealthiest people in Philadelphia, period.
Mary Ellen Pleasant (1815-1904)
Mary Ellen Pleasant was an entrepreneur, financier, real estate magnate and abolitionist. Many consider her the mother of the California Civil Rights Movement. She made it her mission to earn as much money as possible, so she could help as many people as possible.
Pleasant was born in 1815. Historians refute her claim that she was born free in Philadelphia, citing an origin further south to enslaved parents.
Pleasant spent her childhood, however, working as a domestic servant in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where she learned to read and write.
She also worked in the family’s store and developed her business acumen there. Around 1840, she left Nantucket and moved to Boston. In Boston, she worked in a tailor shop and met her first husband, James Smith. They were abolitionists who helped enslaved people escape to Nova Scotia via the Underground Railroad.
After her husband died, she inherited his estate worth tens of thousands of dollars. In the late 1840s, she returned to Nantucket, where she met her second husband, John James Pleasant. And in 1852, she migrated west to San Francisco, California.
Although she was considerably wealthy, her skin color meant many Whites thought she was nothing more than a domestic worker. But that suited Pleasant just fine, allowing her to glean free investment tips from them as they talked with their peers. She had an impressive portfolio of real estate and mining stock.
With her revenue, she supported the Black press, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Athenaeum Building, where San Francisco’s Black population held meetings.
Throughout her life, she drew attention to injustice. She even helped to repeal a law that banned Black testimony in California’s courts. She also played a role in establishing California’s Underground Railroad, and she contributed $30,000 (equivalent to approximately $905,000 today) to fund John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia.
She and her business partner, White businessman Thomas Bell, shared a collective fortune of $30 million (worth roughly $864 million today).
Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Madam C.J. Walker was an entrepreneur, philanthropist and activist. You might have heard of her – she is considered the first self-made Black millionaire in America.
Walker was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. She was orphaned at the age of 7, moved to Vicksburg, Mississippi, and began working as a domestic servant.
In 1882, she married to escape an abusive brother-in-law at the age of 14. When her husband died in 1887, she and her daughter moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where her brothers were barbers. In St. Louis, she attended night school and also met her husband, Charles J. Walker.
In the 1890s, she began suffering from a scalp disorder that led to hair loss. She began experimenting with home remedies and store-bought products to find a solution.
In 1905, she was hired by Annie Turnbo Malone, a Black hair care entrepreneur, and moved to Denver, Colorado. While working for Malone, Walker began developing her own line of products. Her husband, who worked in advertising, helped her market the products.
Walker sold her products door-to-door and taught other Black women how to care for and style their hair. As her business grew, she put her daughter in charge of mailing out orders while she and Mr. Walker traveled throughout the South and Southeast to give demonstrations of the “Walker Method” of hair care.
In 1908, she and her husband moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and she opened the Leila College, a beauty school. In 1910, she relocated to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she opened a factory, hair salon and beauty school. By 1917, she had trained approximately 20,000 women and employed several thousand women as salespeople for her products.
Walker also helped other Black women take control of their finances by showing them how to budget, build their own businesses and encouraging them to strive for financial independence.
I sincerely hope these entrepreneurs’ stories have inspired you to chase your dreams and build your legacy. Just like them, you can leave your mark on the world and make a difference in others’ lives. Ready to start carving out your place in history? Book your FREE ‘Make Your Mark’ coaching session here: https://go.appointmentcore.com/CoachingwithMontrella.