Some of the most successful Black entrepreneurs in history are still rarely recognized by name, even though quite a few have inspired businesspeople for almost a century or more. The same few quotes by the same few figures tend to go around the internet every year for Black History Month — and there is very good reason to always remember our Martin Luther Kings and Toni Morrisons, but for 2023, we wanted to highlight other important Black figures who risk being forgotten.
Help us highlight these beacons of inspiration and celebrate the power of diversity by reading a little about the entrepreneurs below. This list of successful Black business owners is filled with people who started with very little and ended up helping millions of people in their communities as well as becoming some of the first Black millionaires in the process.
Throughout the 1960s, Arthur George Gaston was one of the richest Black men in America, building his wealth by establishing the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. with $500. He went on to own many businesses like the Citizens Federal Savings and Loan, the Smith and Gaston Funeral Home and the Gaston Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders stayed while they were in Birmingham. Gaston was one of the leading employers of the Black community in Alabama, providing an inspiring model for giving back to our communities.
Throughout the 1960s, Arthur George Gaston was one of the richest Black men in America. He was also one of the leading employers of the Black community in Alabama.
John H. Johnson
John H. Johnson is the man who issued the iconic magazines Ebony and Jet through a publishing company that he established with a $500 loan — which he borrowed against his mother's furniture. As a shining example of ingenuity and business acumen, we honor Johnson as the first Black man to appear on the Forbes 400 in 1982.
Madam C.J. Walker
Madam C.J. Walker set forth a special line of beauty and hair products for Black women, becoming one of the first self-made Black millionaires in the process. We value her inspiring creativity, as well as her perseverance in paving the way as a role model for all Black entrepreneurs.
Madam C.J. Walker set forth a special line of beauty and hair products for Black women, becoming one of the first self-made Black millionaires in the process.
Maggie L. Walker
The first Black woman in America to charter a bank, Maggie Lena Walker formed St. Luke Penny Savings bank through her community's funding. She served as the bank’s chairman of the board after it merged with two other banks to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, using her admirable talents to form a successful Black business that also served her community.
As a freed slave in the 1850s, Clara Brown became known as the "Angel of the Rockies" by helping former slaves establish themselves in Colorado during the Gold Rush. As one of the first Black settlers in the state, she started a successful laundry business for gold miners, later investing in mines and Colorado real estate during her life. Her business and home became a hub for the community of Central City, where people regardless of race would often turn to her for help.
For Black History Month, we celebrate the examples that these figures have become for generations of aspiring businesspeople. By amplifying stories of successful Black entrepreneurs, we hope their numbers will grow exponentially and prove that the American dream is always within reach, no matter who you are.
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