Although African Americans endured abject racism and prejudice during the 18th and 19th centuries, many businesses sprang 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. NewsOnecontinues its look at 20 Black business owners of that time period, highlighting their significant contributions to American society.
George Franklin Grant, Harvard dentist and inventor of the wooden golf tee
George Franklin Grant (pictured above) established himself in the world of business, after entering Harvard’s School of Dental Medicine, becoming the university’s first African-American faculty staff member. It was Grant’s invention and patenting of a golf tee that would later gain him notoriety. In 1899, Grant was awarded a patent for a wood golf tee fashioned after British inventor Percy Ellis’ “Perfectum” tee.
Mary Edmonia Lewis, savvy sculptor and businesswoman
Mary Edmonia Lewis owns the distinction of being the first African American recognized as a sculptor and achieving international stardom as a result. Although she began her career in Boston, she would move to Rome and continued her successful career. Of note, Lewis was known for her savvy business skills and abilities to garner sales of her work by using raffles, advertising, and other marketing tools.
Lewis Howard Latimer (pictured right) was born the son of an escaped slave in New Jersey on September 4, 1848. As a young man, he landed a job at a patent law firm and showed proficiency at drafting designs for the firm. Along with his work as the head draftsman at the law firm, Latimer helped invent and patent a series of useful inventions in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Chief among those inventions was his discovery of a process used for electric filament manufacturing in light bulbs. Working for a variety of electronic companies in the New York area, he eventually landed a job at General Electric as chief draftsman and a coordinator of patent licensing and regulation.
Norbert Rillieux, inventor who helped boost the sugar industry
Norbert Rillieux and his contribution to the production and refinement of sugar cane boosted the business and made him a considerable fortune. A mixed Creole-American, Rillieux was the son of a wealthy plantation owner and was afforded a prime education.
Learning physics and engineering, he was later offered a job at a Louisiana sugar refinery but found the process arduous. He would go on to invent a multiple-effect evaporation system that produced better results than the “Jamaica train” method that was originally used. Rillieux would patent the machine and process, convincing a host of Louisiana sugar factories to hop on board. The method was so effective that it could produce up to 18,000 pounds of sugar per day.
Christina Carteaux Bannister, businesswoman and “hair doctress”
Christina Carteaux Bannister (pictured right) was born in Rhode Island of mixed parentage, but she was most certainly a descendant of slaves who worked in Rhode Island’s South County. She moved to Boston as a young woman and took up the trade of hairdressing.
Amassing serious wealth as a self-proclaimed “hair doctress,” Bannister married Canadian-born painter Edward Bannister and supported her husband as he became a successful Black artist. The couple were friends and lived with abolitionist Lewis Hayden and helped provide support to the Underground Railroad.
Joshua Bowen Smith, the “Prince Of Caterers”
Born in Pennsylvania and finally settling in Boston in 1836, Joshua Bowen Smith worked as a waiter at the Mount Washington House. A quick study, he employed what he learned from his job and began a catering business in 1849. An active proponent of the anti-slavery movement, Smith was known for hiring other progressive free Blacks to work for him. Known as the “Prince Of Caterers,” Smith was a known ally of Lewis Hayden.
Harriet E. Wilson, first African-American female novelist and entrepreneur
Harriet E. Wilson’s (pictured above) historic 1859 book “Our Nig” catapulted her in to the annals of history as the first African-American novelist. Although the book was a significant moment in time, Wilson would go on and become well-known in New England as a traveling merchant selling hair care items. From her New Hampshire home, Wilson also sold and marketed her novel as well.
Isaac Myers, African-American trade union pioneer and leader
Baltimore’s Isaac Myers, born free in 1835, faced barriers like most African Americans but surpassed his humble beginnings. Learning to read and write in a time where he was banned from public schools in his hometown, he would find work in the Maryland city’s bustling seaports as a ship caulker.
Although Myers and other freemen had skills beyond preparing ships for sailing, they were mostly barred from greater opportunity due to racism. And even though Myers would become a successful clerk of a grocery business, he still maintained ties with Black ship workers on the docks.
When the largely White National Labor Union was formed, Myers fought for Black unionists to be included in the movement as president of the Colored National Labor Union.
Louis C. Roudanez, doctor and newspaper publishing pioneer
Louis C. Roudanez was born in Louisiana to a French merchant Father and free Black Mother. Like many children of mixed parentage in the state, he was raised and educated in France, where he earned a medical degree. Returning to New Orleans, he operated a successful practice open to Blacks and Whites.
When the city was federally occupied in 1862, Roudanez and his brother Jean-Baptiste would found the newspaper “La Tribune de la Nouvelle Orleans,” the first daily published newspaper by African Americans.
James Napier, Tennessee businessman and politician
James C. Napier (pictured above) was born to free parents on June 9, 1845, in the city of Nashville. After a race riot in December 1856, which ended the education of Blacks in Tennessee, Napier finished his schooling in Ohio. Befriending powerful Black Republican congressman John Mercer Langston, Napier was convinced by the politician to enroll at the newly opened law school at Howard University.
Returning to Nashville, Napier became a key figure in the city. After becoming the first African American to preside over the city’s council board, he later achieved notoriety as President William H. Taft’s Register of the United States Treasury the years of 1911-13. Napier founded the Citizens Savings Bank in 1904, presiding over the firm well in to his later days.