February is Black History Month. Hence the challenging article Why Aren't Black Business Tycoons Celebrated During Black History Month? Much of the answer to that question lies in the fact that relatively few historians have labored in the vineyard of black business history.
Many black businesspeople would echo the first black woman millionaire in America, Madame C.J. Walker: "I got my start by giving myself a start." Up to this point, entrepreneurship has been the surest path to the top. For whatever complex mix of reasons, in the corporate world only eight black executives have ever made it to the CEO or Chairman position of a Fortune 500 company; not until July of last year did a black woman become head of a Fortune 500 company.
"Blacks have been inventing things ever since slavery," says Lawrence P. King, former president of the National Technical Association. The earliest black patent holder was Thomas Jennings (1821); the patent was awarded for a process which is the forerunner of today's dry cleaning. Jennings was a free man; patent rights were not extended to slaves until 1861. Jennings used the income from his invention to free the rest of his family and to fund abolitionist causes. By 1990, some 2,000 black persons had obtained patents. Fast forward to the present and Lonnie G. Johnson; he has been awarded more than forty patents and continues to invent in the areas of thermo- and fluid dynamics. Johnson's expertise in fluid dynamics led to his most famous invention, the SuperSoaker!
The most high-profile contemporary black business person has to be Oprah Winfrey. And then there's George Foreman; since 1995, his drive and enthusiasm have moved one hundred million grills. (Younger people may not even know that he was once a champion boxer; he left boxing in 1977.) The recent death of Percy Sutton, politician, lawyer, and radio station owner, was a significant milestone in modern black entrepreneurship. A few other notable individuals: Alphonse Fletcher, Jr. (financier); Quintin Primo III (real estate); Ulysses L. "Junior" Bridgeman, Jr. (restaurants); R. Donahue Peebles (real estate); Tracy Maitland (investing); and Janice Bryant Howroyd (personnel services).
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