Although African Americans endured abject racism and prejudice in the 18th Century, many businesses sprung forth in spite of the barriers ahead of them. With determined grit and sound practices, Black business leaders began to emerge and earned the right to engage in commerce like any other citizen. NewsOne takes a look at 20 Black business owners between the time period of 1800 and 1900, highlighting their significant contributions to American society.
Joseph Randolph, President of the African Insurance Company
In 1810, the African Insurance Company was opened in Philadelphia. Helmed by President Joseph Randolph, the company was formed to help support African Americans who did not want to join the mutual aid Free African Society but needed assistance and other benefits. Historians note this is the first African-American insurance company.
William Leidesdorff, America’s first millionaire of African descent
William Leidesdorff was of mixed parentage but is largely identified as being of African descent. Raised in the Dutch West Indies, Leidesdorff was involved in the shipping trade initially. He was responsible for launching the first steamboat in the Bay Area of California and opened and operated San Francisco’s first hotel. He also went on to become the city’s school board president. After amassing large plots of land, his worth at the time of his passing was nearly a million and a half dollars.
David Ruggles, owner of first African-American bookstore
Abolitionist and journalist David Ruggles was instrumental in the liberation of slaves as part of the famous Underground Railroad. After learning Latin from a tutor who attended Yale University, Ruggles would go on to publish works as a printer. A contributing journalist to popular papers of the time, Ruggles most-notable achievement was opening the first Black-owned bookstore in New York City.
Paul Cuffee, Quaker businessman
Paul Cuffee made his fortune in the shipping trade and went on to open Massachusetts’ first integrated school. After being born to a former slave and Native American mother, Cuffee tended to his father’s farm before taking to the seas. He was also an instrumental proponent in helping British efforts to give freed slaves a place to settle.
William Johnson, the “Barber Of Natchez”
Born in to slavery, William Johnson was freed as a young boy in 1820 and became a barber’s apprentice in Natchez, Miss. After his brother-in-law sold him a barber shop, Johnson would own and operate the business while teaching freed young Black boys the art of barbering.
William Whipper, abolitionist and lumber businessman
William Whipper’s path to success was rooted in a controversial idea known as “moral reform”; however, his contributions to antislavery are noteworthy as is his profitable lumber business with partner Stephen Smith in Pennsylvania.
James Forten, inventor and shipping businessman
James Forten, like many African-Americans in the North, made his fortune in the maritime industry. He was also an active political figure and used his Quaker education to advance his life and others who wished to stamp out slavery. Forten invented a device for ship sails during his time in the industry.
Joseph Cassey, Philadelphia wig business owner
Joseph Cassey lived in the city of brotherly love after arriving from the French West Indies in the early 1800s. He struck gold with a wig, perfume, and barbershop business and was also involved in real estate with other partners in the city.
Robert Purvis, wealthy abolitionist
Although Robert Purvis was three-quarters European Jewish, he and his siblings aligned themselves with the African-American community in Pennsylvania. After obtaining considerable wealth from his father’s estate, Purvis would help form and fund abolitionist efforts across the North. He would later marry the daughter of James Forten.
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