Black History Month: 5 African-American Entrepreneurs

Today, in honor of Black History Month, here's a look at the impressive and wide-ranging achievements of five African-American entrepreneurs.
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Christiana Carteaux Bannister

Christiana Carteaux Bannister Photo

Portrait of Christiana Carteaux Bannister. (Painting: Edward Mitchell Bannister [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Before Madam C.J. Walker and Annie Turnbo Malone succeeded in the beauty industry in the early 20th century, Christiana Carteaux Bannister, a woman of African-American and Narragansett Indian heritage, had already achieved success as a hair stylist (and wigmaker) in pre-Civil War America. Carteaux Bannister was born Christiana Babcock in Rhode Island circa 1820. After moving to Boston in the 1840s, she became a skilled hairdresser (or "hair doctress," as stylists were known at the time). Following a failed marriage that gave her the last name Carteaux, she went into business as Madame Carteaux.

Carteaux ended up operating several salons in Boston, and one in Worcester, Massachusetts; she also produced a line of hair care products. Her businesses did so well that when she wed her second husband, Edward M. Bannister, in 1857, she was able to support him as he pursued a career as a painter. Carteaux also used her financial acumen to support worthy causes, such as raising funds for the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, which was made up of African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War.

Rising racial tensions prompted the Bannisters to move to Rhode Island after the war, but Carteaux Bannister was able to open another salon in Providence. Her charitable actions continued as well: in 1890, she founded the Home for Aged and Colored Women (which still operates under the name Bannister Nursing Care Center). A century after her 1902 death, a bust of Carteaux Bannister was dedicated in Rhode Island's State House.

Maggie Lena Walker

Maggie Lena Walker Photo

Maggie Lena Walker in 1913. (Photo: The Browns [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Maggie Lena Walker was the first woman in America — of any color — to charter and serve as president of a bank. However, when Walker was born in 1864, it wasn't into a position that suggested future financial triumphs. As she once noted, "I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but with a laundry basket practically on my head." Much of her childhood was spent working with her mother, a former slave, in her mother's laundry business.

As a teenager, Walker became part of the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal African-American organization. By 1899, the Order was in financial difficulties, with just $30 in funds (and $400 in debts). However, those problems didn't deter Walker from becoming head of the group that year. She felt the Order had a chance to help members by expanding its services, and envisaged a bank that would serve the black community. In a 1901 speech, Walker said, "Let us have a bank that will take the nickels and turn them into dollars."

The Saint Luke Penny Savings Bank opened in Richmond in November 1903, and took in more than $9,000 in deposits on its first day. And while white-owned banks had often ignored or mistreated African Americans, Walker's bank was happy to serve them — by 1920, it had facilitated the purchase of more than 600 homes. With the help of mergers that Walker coordinated, the bank survived the Great Depression as Consolidated Bank and Trust. It remained America's oldest continuously African-American-operated bank until it was acquired by Premier Bank in 2009.

Frederick Douglass Patterson

Frederick Douglas Patterson Photo

Frederick Douglass Patterson. (Photo: Public Domain via

Frederick Douglass Patterson was born in 1871. During his childhood, his father became the sole owner of the C. R. Patterson and Sons Carriage Company of Greenfield, Ohio. After attending college and spending a couple of years as a teacher, Patterson joined this company. He took charge of the business following his father's death in 1910.

When Patterson began to spot "funny-looking horseless carriages" while traveling on business, he was savvy enough to realize his company needed to diversify. In the fall of 1915 the Patterson-Greenfield two-door coupe made its debut, making Patterson the first African-American car manufacturer. He would also produce a four-door touring car.

Patterson's company was building automobiles at the same time Henry Ford was making Model Ts — and some considered Patterson's vehicles to be a more impressive feat of engineering than Ford's. However, Patterson couldn't compete with the efficiencies of the Detroit assembly line and in 1919 the company stopped making cars. A switch to building the bodies of school buses and trucks let the business continue, but the Great Depression made things more difficult. After Patterson's 1932 death, the company held on for a few years before shutting down in 1939.

John H. Johnson

John H. Johnson Photo

John H. Johnson (Photo: Wikipedia)

Many people say they owe their success to their mothers, but it's particularly true in John H. Johnson's case. Johnson, who was born in 1918, was working for Supreme Life Insurance when he decided to create a version of Reader's Digest for African Americans. Using his mother's furniture as collateral, he got a $500 loan that allowed him to start Negro Digest in 1942.

Johnson had a group of friends ask newsstands for the Digest, which prompted them to stock the magazine (he sold copies his pals had purchased back to distributors). Within a year of its launch, it reached 50,000 in monthly circulation. In 1945, Johnson had an even bigger hit with Ebony. The magazine, which offered a positive representation of African Americans not seen in other national media, sold out its first print run of 25,000; circulation reached a high of 1.9 million in 1997 (in 2015, total circulation was still more than 1.2 million).

The Digest ceased publication in 1951, but Johnson would launch other magazines, such as Jet. His publications gave black journalists job opportunities that weren't available elsewhere. And his activities weren't limited to media — after learning that dark-skinned women had limited makeup options, he started Fashion Fair Cosmetics.

In 1982, Johnson became the first African American on Forbes magazine's list of the 400 wealthiest people in America. He passed away in 2005, but his publishing and cosmetics companies are still around today.

Berry Gordy Jr.

Berry Gordy Photo

Berry Gordy. (Photo: Shutterstock)

In 1959, when a 29-year-old Berry Gordy Jr. established the company that would become Motown Records, he created a place where artists such as Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross would thrive. However, though the talents of these and other performers contributed to the label, their popularity shouldn't overshadow the business savvy that Gordy used to make Motown a success.

Having worked on a factory assembly line before founding Motown, Gordy understood the importance of quality control, and he did his best to implement quality checks in his business. For example, potential releases had to pass muster in a Motown staff meeting, where Gordy would sometimes ask, "If you were hungry and had only one dollar would you buy this record or a hot dog?" If the music didn't beat out food, it wouldn't get released. By 1972, Motown's output included more than 100 Top 10 songs, and 31 releases had reached the top of the charts, demonstrating the effectiveness of Gordy's techniques.

While Gordy also achieved success in movies and TV, it's his work with Motown that stands out as a remarkable entrepreneurial accomplishment. In 1988, he sold the company for $61 million — an amazing return on the original $800 family loan that he'd used to start the business.