The danger of black wealth

New WTTW documentary explores the trials and triumphs of black businessmen

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By Michael Romain

Editor

When John H. Johnson, the creator of the iconic Ebony and Jet magazines, went to purchase office space, he brought along a white man to act as the buyer while Johnson played the part of a janitor in order to inspect the building, his daughter recalled. 

When white consumers learned that the founder and president of Fuller Products Company, which employed thousands of white cosmetic salespeople at its peak in the 1950s, was a black man, Samuel B. Fuller, many of them boycotted the product. 

When the bustling African American community of Greenwood, Tulsa — dubbed Black Wall Street for its many black-owned businesses — got too big for its britches, white resentment fueled a race riot in 1921. Whites killed more than two dozen black residents while injuring hundreds more and burning the community to ashes in less than a day.

Watching "Boss: The Black Experience in Business," a new documentary that premiered on WTTW 11 on April 23, and that is currently streaming online, I learned just how dangerous black enterprise has been perceived by whites in America, so much so that the history of black wealth-building in this country cannot be told without mentioning the innumerable attempts by whites to plunder, pillage and block black businesspeople, seemingly at every turn. 

Indeed, to study the history of black capitalism in this country is to wonder whether the term is paradoxical. That's because capitalism and racism have been so entwined throughout American history that it's hard to see where one stops and the other begins. 

But the story of black wealth-building in America is not defined solely by oppression. Black businesspeople have had to be uniquely keen, cunning and courageous in order to get ahead. That's a legacy of heroism and perseverance that young African American entrepreneurs should be proud of. 

Last week, just days after watching "Boss," I was browsing the shelves of a used bookstore and came across Dempsey Travis's 1991 book "Racism: American Style a Corporate Gift," which is based on interviews with blacks in Corporate America.

One of those interviews was given by my great-uncle, Richard Linyard. When he graduated Proviso East High School in 1947, Uncle Dickey got a job as a porter, washing windows outside of an Oak Park clothing store. 

One day, the vice president of an Oak Park bank, who would often chat with my uncle on his way to work, told him, "We've got a very fine colored janitorial force working here. How would you like to work for us when we get an opening?"

Uncle Dickey accepted to promotion, going from a pay of $98 a month to $198 a month. As part of his janitorial duties, my uncle operated the elevator in the bank during evenings, putting him in close proximity to the bank's directors. 

He parlayed that proximity into another promotion, as a fulltime elevator operator. The bank president eventually sent him to the American Institute of Banking, which would prepare him for yet another promotion as a bookkeeper. 

During his second night of classes at the institute, "the students rose one by one, gave their names, the institutions they worked for and the departments they worked in such as trust, credit department, bookkeeping, etc." 

When my uncle introduce himself as an elevator operator at a bank, everyone "looked at me with big grins on their faces and started to laugh. They laughed and they laughed. It seemed to me like they must have laughed for hours. I was so humiliated that I could have jumped into a six-foot grave and buried myself without any assistance." 

My uncle would get the last laugh, though. In 1973, he became president of Seaway National Bank of Chicago. He only had a high school diploma. 

Watch "Boss" online at: https://schedule.wttw.com/episodes/473898/Boss-The-Black-Experience-In-Business. 

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com  

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