From the Past


Reginald Lewis: Remembering the first black man behind a billion-dollar business

Booker T. Washington. “I believe,” Washington insisted, “that my race will succeed in proportion as it learns to do a common thing in an uncommon manner; learns to do a thing so thoroughly that no one can improve upon what it has done; learns to make its services of indispensable value.”

“Slavery and free institutions can never live peaceably together,” Frederick Douglass observed. “Liberty . . . must either overthrow slavery, or be itself overthrown by slavery.” His words helped lay a framework for black businessmen to take their entrepreneur dreams to the next level.

George Washington Carver

Annie Turnbo Malone (August 9, 1869—May 10, 1957). Source:

You have heard of Oprah Winfrey? Sure, who hasn’t? How about Madam C.J. Walker? No brainer. I can see heads nodding up and down all over the place.

How about Annie Malone? Blank stares. Never heard of her…
Yet, before Madam Walker, Mary McCloud Bethune, Oprah Winfrey or Cathy Hughes there was Annie Turnbo Malone (aka Annie Minerva Turnbo Pope Malone and Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone), a remarkable woman who made her mark during the early 20th century.

Malone is recorded as the U.S.’s first black female millionaire based on reports of $14 million in assets held in 1920 from her beauty and cosmetic enterprises, headquartered in St. Louis and Chicago.
Annie Minerva Turnbo Malone (August 9, 1869—May 10, 1957) was an African-American  businesswoman, educator,  inventor and philanthropist. Annie was two years younger than Madam C. J. Walker. She had launched her hair care business four years before Madam C. J. Walker.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, she founded and developed a large and prominent commercial and educational enterprise centered around cosmetics for African-American women.

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Vintage photo of graduation class with Annie Turnbo Malone in the center (back row, with glasses) held at Big Bethel AME Church, Atlanta. See church organ pipes in background.

Vintage photo of Annie Malone (center, front row w/ long print dress) at a 1938 graduation held at a Baptist church in Atlanta. Annie suffered a reversal of fortunes in the 1930s.


Madam C.J. Walker

Madam C.J. Walker with Booker T. Washington

Madam C.J. Walker’s National Business Convention, 1917 in Philadelphia

Mme CJ Walker’s Motor Car

Marcus Garvey

Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Jr., ONH (17 August 1887 – 10 June 1940),[1] was a Jamaican political leader, publisher, journalist, entrepreneur, and orator who was a staunch proponent of the Black nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements, to which end he founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League (UNIA-ACL).[2] He founded the Black Star Line, which promoted the return of the African diaspora to their ancestral lands.

Prior to the twentieth century, leaders such as Prince Hall, Martin Delany, Edward Wilmot Blyden, and Henry Highland Garnet advocated the involvement of the African diaspora in African affairs. Garvey was unique in advancing a Pan-African philosophy to inspire a global mass movement and economic empowerment focusing on Africa known as Garveyism.[2] Promoted by the UNIA as a movement of African Redemption, Garveyism would eventually inspire others, ranging from the Nation of Islam to the Rastafari movement (which proclaims Garvey as a prophet).

Read more about Marcus Garvey here



Black Wall Street – Tulse, OK

Greenwood is a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As one of the most successful and wealthiest African American communities in the United States during the early 20th Century, it was popularly known as America’s “Black Wall Street” until the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. The invasion was one of the most devastating massacres in the history of US race relations, destroying the once thriving Greenwood community.

Within five years after the massacre, surviving residents who chose to remain in Tulsa rebuilt much of the district. They accomplished this despite the opposition of many white Tulsa political and business leaders. It resumed being a vital black community until segregation was overturned by the Federal Government during the 1950s and 1960s. Desegregation encouraged blacks to live and shop elsewhere in the city, causing Greenwood to lose much of its original vitality. Since then, city leaders have attempted to encourage other economic development activity nearby.

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National Negro Business League Executive Committee. The NNBL was formally incorporated in 1901 in New York, and established hundreds of chapters across the United States. In 1966, the National Negro Business League was reincorporated in Washington, D.C. and renamed the National Business League.


William Curly Neal with Granddaughter (Photo Courtesy of the Oracle Historical Society)

Neal, William “Curly” (1849 –1936)

William “Curly” Neal helped turn a frontier western mining camp in the Santa Catalina Mountains of Arizona into a booming town that attracted businessmen and financiers, elite vacationers, and royals from around the world. His various business ventures as a teamster, passenger and freight hauler, rancher, hotelier, and entrepreneur point toward the pioneering spirit that helped him settle Oracle, Arizona Territory and become one of the areas wealthiest citizens. Neal was born in 1849 in Tahlequah in the Cherokee Nation. His father was of African American descent and his mother, a Native American, had walked the Trail of Tears.

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Black men and women owned and operated their own business. This picture was made about 1910 in front of the Queen City Drug Store on E. Second St. in Brooklyn. Almost all of Brooklyn or Second Ward was demolished by the City’s Urban Renewal program in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

History of Black Barbers as Early Entrepreneurs

Barbershops owned by African-Americans have been around since the 19th century. But it’s only been since the late 1880s and 1890s that Black-owned barbershops really represented a clear opportunity for entrepreneurship and a chance to serve the Black community.

When Black-owned barbershops first began to appear, they were still reflecting signs of a history of slavery by serving wealthy, white clients such as politicians and businessmen. As more Black men were born into a free society, that began to change. Gradually more barber shops began to appear which were owned by Blacks and serving Blacks in Black communities. These were some of the very first Black entrepreneurs.


Studio photograph of an African-American family in Lexington from around 1910. The man in the center of the front row with the child on his lap has been identified as Spottswood Styles, a prominent black citizen and poet. Photos courtesy of the Library of Virginia

Charlotte had an African American newspaper in the 1800’s. The founder, editor and publisher of the Charlotte Messenger was W. C. Smith, a member of Grace A.M.E. Zion Church

James C. Napier was born June 9, 1845, in Nashville Tennessee. Napier was a lawyer, politician, civil leader, banker, and President of the National Negro Business League. James organized the first black owned bank in Tennessee. Source:

JAMES C. NAPIER, Esq. (1845 – 1940)
James C. Napier was born of free parents on June 9, 1845, in Nashville, Tennessee. His father, William Carroll, was a free hack driver and a sometime overseer. James attended the free blacks school on Line and high Street (now Sixth Avenue) with some sixty other black children until white vigilantes forced the classes to close in 1856. Although the teacher, Daniel Wadkins, a free black, reopened the school, the December of 1856 race riot caused a temporary end to black education in Nashville until the Union occupation in February in 1862. After the riot, the Napier family and several other moderately wealthy free black families either moved or sent their children to Ohio to continue their children’ s education under free black teacher Rufus Conrad.

Between 1872 and 1913, James C. Napier became Afro-American Nashville’ s most powerful politician and its most influential citizen. Between 1878 and 1886, he served on the Nashville City Council and was the first black to preside over the council. He was instrumental in the hiring of black teachers for the colored public schools during the l87Os, the hiring of black detectives, and the organization of the black fire-engine company during the 1880’s. His greatest political accomplishment was his service as President William H. Taft ‘ s Register of the United States Treasury from 1911 to 1913.

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George Downing and family, prominant businessman. 1890s. Photo: Museum of African American History

Officers of the Negro Women’s League at a Newport RI convention. 1899. Photo: Library of Congress

Anthony Overton (b. March 21, 1865 – d. July 2, 1946)

On March 18, 1864, Anthony Overton was born into slavery in Monroe, Louisiana. After being born one year before the legal end of slavery in the USA, Anthony Overton would later become a pioneering manufacturer, banker, lawyer and businessman.

The son of Anthony and Martha (Deberry) Overton, Anthony Overton was educated at Washburn College and would also graduate from the University of Kansas where he earned a Bachelor of Laws. He graduated from the University of Kansas law school. He practiced law for a time and even served as a judge before concentrating on developing his business operations.

In 1898, Overton established the Hygienic Manufacturing Company in Kansas City. In 1911, he moved operations to Chicago where he manufactured baking powder, toilet preparations, and other extract products. He soon launched the High-Brown Products label where he produced a full-line of ladies fine cosmetics and perfumes in Chicago. Anthony Overton developed a major business conglomerate in Chicago that began its operations from this Overton Hygienic Building. In 1922, Overton commissioned architect Z. Erol Smith to design and build the Overton Hygienic Building. In addition to hygienic care products, Overton would operate the Chicago Bee newspaper franchise, Victory Life Insurance Company, Douglass National Bank, and Northern Realty Company from this business facility and his second building, The Chicago Bee Building.

The Overton Hygienic Building was later known in history as the Palace Hotel.

Overton Hygienic Building in Chicago Today

Charles C. Spaulding

Business Leader And Civil Rights Activist, Charles Clinton Spaulding Was Born On August 1, 1874, In Columbus County, North Carolina. Spaulding Left Home At Age 20 And Moved To Durham, NC Where He Became Manager Of A Black-Owned Grocery Store.

In 1899, The Newly EstablishedNorth Carolina Mutual & Provident AssociationHired Him As General Manager. A Year Later He Was Promoted To Full-Time General Manager. Spaulding’s Aggressive Advertising Strategy To Give The Company Name Recognition Within The Community Paid Off.North Carolina Mutual & Provident AssociationProspered In The First 10 Years, Establishing Subsidiaries And Supporting A Number Of Local Businesses. In 1919 The Firm Officially Changed Its Name To TheNorth Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Under Spaulding’s Direction,North Carolina MutualBecame The Largest Black-Owned Business Of The Time.By 1923 C. C. Spaulding Had Become The Company’s President, A Position He Held Until His Death In 1952. At The Time Of His Death,North Carolina Mutual Insurance CompanyHad Amassed Assets Of Over $37 Million.

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Bridget “Biddy” Mason

Born into slavery in Mississippi on August 15, 1818, Bridget “Biddy” Mason became a pioneer in Los Angeles’ earliest Black business and religious communities. Mason worked as a nurse and midwife, saving $300,000 which she used to fund the First AME Church in Los Angeles. Though she passed away in 1891 in an unmarked grave, her impact on the city remained a century later.

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Robert Curry Owens

Robert Curry Owens was born in Los Angeles, California in January of 1860 to Charles Owens, a livery stable owner, and Ellen Mason-Owens. As the first born grandson to the Owens-Mason union, Robert rose to prominence in Los Angeles after inheriting both his father’s and grandmother, Bridget “Biddy” Mason’s, estate. Throughout the Progressive Era, Owens’ social, political, and economic influence in Los Angeles made him one of the most powerful African American men on the west coast.

When Charles Owens and Ellen Mason were married in 1856, they united two of Los Angeles’ most powerful pioneering families. As the first born heir to the Owens-Mason family, Robert was reared to continue his family’s legacy. During his childhood, Owens attended J.B. Sanderson’s School for Blacks in Oakland, California and completed his education in 1879 after studying business. Both the Owens and the Mason families took pride in hard work, which they instilled in Robert. Throughout his youth, Owens worked as a ranch laborer, a charcoal peddler, and even drove the street sprinkler for Los Angeles city contractors.

When Charles Owens died in 1882, Robert and his brother, Henry L., inherited their father’s real estate holdings in Los Angeles, including The Owens Livery Stable. When Robert inherited Biddy Mason’s estate in 1891, he constructed a new livery stable on her real estate holdings, as well as, a six-story building worth $250,000. Owens even purchased one of the most elegant homes in a predominately white neighborhood for his wife Annie and their two daughters Gladys and Manila L. In addition, the Owens business block along Spring Street housed several of L.A.’s African American owned establishments, which brought Robert great wealth. By the start of the twentieth century, Owens’ property holdings were worth a quarter of a million dollars, making him the wealthiest African American on the west coast.

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Maggie Lena Walker (1864–1934)

Maggie Lena Walker was born on July 15, 1864, in Richmond, Virginia. She attended school and graduated in 1883, having been trained as a teacher. She married a brick contractor in 1886 and left her teaching job, at which point she became more active within the Independent Order of St. Luke, an an organization dedicated to the social and financial advancement of African Americans. In 1899, Maggie Walker became grand secretary of the organization—a position that she would hold for the rest of her life. During her tenure, she founded the organization’s newspaper, and opened a highly successful bank and a department store. By the time she died, on December 15, 1934, Walker had turned the nearly bankrupt organization into a profitable and effective one.

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Eleven years before creating Negro History Week in 1926, Carter G. Woodson undertook the feat of creating an academic discipline from the chronicles Africans in America.

Dr. Eliza Ann Grier. Born a slave she became the first African American to practice medicine in Georgia


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