At the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a hallway of glass display cases features more than a century of black entrepreneurial triumphs. In one is a World War II–era mini parachute manufactured by the black-owned Pacific Parachute Company, home to one of the nation’s first racially integrated production plants. Another displays a giant time clock from the R. H. Boyd Publishing Company, among the earliest firms to print materials for black churches and schools. Although small, the exhibit recalls a now largely forgotten legacy: by serving their communities when others wouldn’t, black-owned independent businesses provided avenues of upward mobility for generations of black Americans and supplied critical leadership and financial support for the civil rights movement.
This tradition continues today. Last June, Black Enterprise magazine marked the forty-fourth anniversary of the BE 100s, the magazine’s annual ranking of the nation’s top 100 black-owned businesses. At the top of the list stood World Wide Technology, which, since its founding in 1990, has grown into a global firm with more than $7 billion in revenue and 3,000 employees. Then came companies like Radio One, whose fifty-five radio stations fan out among sixteen national markets. The combined revenues of the BE 100s, which also includes Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, now totals more than $24 billion, a ninefold increase since 1973, adjusting for inflation.
A closer look at the numbers, however, reveals that these pioneering companies are the exception to a far more alarming trend. The last thirty years also have brought the wholesale collapse of black-owned independent businesses and financial institutions that once anchored black communities across the country. In 1985, sixty black-owned banks were providing financial services to their communities; today, just twenty-three remain. In eleven states that headquartered black-owned banks in 1994, not a single one is still in business. Of the fifty black-owned insurance companies that operated during the 1980s, today just two remain.
Over the same period, tens of thousands of black-owned retail establishments and local service companies also have disappeared, having gone out of business or been acquired by larger companies. Reflecting these developments, working-age black Americans have become far less likely to be their own boss than in the 1990s. The per capita number of black employers, for example, declined by some 12 percent just between 1997 and 2014.