February marks Black History Month, a tribute to Black men and women who have made significant contributions to our country. Started in 1925 by Carter G. Woodson, the purpose of Black History Month is two-fold: to celebrate the work, accomplishments, and resilience of Black Americans and to reflect on the continued struggle for racial justice in our society.
This year, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History announced the theme of “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. While Black History Month is synonymous with prominent figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr., there are countless other Black Americans who’ve made a profound impact on our history. In the spirit of this year’s theme, we’re shining a long-overdue spotlight on the lesser know entrepreneurs and Black-owned family businesses.
1. “Free Frank” (Frank McWorter)
An American slave who eventually bought his freedom, Free Frank became a saltpeter manufacturer and businessman. He experienced significant success during the War of 1812 when saltpeter was in high demand. Because of his success, he was able to buy the freedom of 16 members of his family – with many more even after his death (his heirs used his inheritance to free more relatives). Free Frank is also known to be the first African-American to found a town in the United States; in 1836, he founded the town of New Philadelphia in Illinois.
2. Frederick Patterson & Charles Richard Patterson
Frederick Patterson was the first African-American to manufacture cars. His father, Charles Richard Patterson, cofounded the carriage business, C.R. Patterson & Son Company and eventually bought out his 20-year partner, J.P. Lowe (a white man). After his father’s death, Frederick Patterson developed the Patterson-Greenfield car and was in direct competition with Henry Ford’s Model T. He later converted his business to the Greenfield Bus Body Company.
3. Annie Malone
One of America’s first and most prominent Black businesswomen, Malone founded and developed Poro College, a commercial and educational business focused on cosmetics for Black women. Born to former slaves, Malone would later develop a chemical that could straighten Black women’s hair without causing damage to the hair or scalp. Poro College as an institution of learning, was established as a way to teach people about Black cosmetology. Through the school and the business, Malone created jobs for 75,000 women around the world. She is recorded as the first Black female millionaire in the United States, with a reported $14 million in assets in 1920 ($167 million by today’s standards).
4. Johnson Publishing Company
John Johnson was the founder of Johnson Publishing Company, which publishes both Ebony and Jet magazines. One of his first ventures, The Negro Digest, aimed to cover positive stories about the African-American community, mimicking the style of the Reader’s Digest. Johnson was unable to find any backers—Black or white so in order to fund the publication he used a $500 loan that was borrowed against his mother’s furniture. The company is now run by his daughter Linda.
5. Mahogany Books
In 2007, Derrick and Ramunda Young launched Mahogany Books, an online-only retailer that specializes in books “written for, by, or about people of the African Diaspora.” The husband-and-wife duo opened the doors of their brick-and-mortar store in 2017 in Anacostia, a historically African-American neighborhood in Southeast Washington, D.C.
6. Atlanta Life
Atlanta Life founder, Alonzo Herndon was born into slavery and got his first break in business by owning and running several barbershops in Atlanta before starting up an insurance firm. He started Atlanta Life in 1905 and since then Atlanta Life has expanded into asset management and is still a Black-owned business today.
7. Peotona Capital
South African investment company Peotona Capital was founded in 2005 by four women—three Black, one white—and now runs a successful portfolio of investments. What’s unique about Peotona Capital is that the company invests in the development of South Africa, both through partnerships with the firms it invests in and through its own mentorship program, which currently provides individual mentoring and support to 66 young Black professionals.
8. Millennium Steel Service
Indiana-based Millennium Steel Service was founded in 2001 by husband-and-wife Henry and Andrea Jackson. Henry unfortunately passed away in 2007, but Andrea continues to run both Millennium Steel Service and in 2014 she opened Millennium Steel of Texas (MST) in San Antonio, TX.
While in no way an exhaustive list, we hope you’ll find some inspiration from these business-owners and entrepreneurs who portray the power of Black families and generations working together to build a legacy.