The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship

By Nordhauser, Norman E. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship


Nordhauser, Norman E., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The History of Black Business in America: Capitalism, Race, Entrepreneurship. By Juliet E. K. Walker (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1998. Pp. xxv, 482. $56.25 cloth.)

Juliet E. K. Walker has written a volume that belongs in every library and that many will want to purchase for their personal reference collection. One of Twayne Publisher's series, Evolution of Modem Business, The History of Black Business in America, appears in clear, readable prose for an audience composed of both fellow specialists in business history and the broader general public. Calling her study "introductory" and building on her own previous exploration of African American entrepreneurship in Kentucky and Illinois, particularly Free Frank: A Black Pioneer on the Antebellum Frontier (1983) and on the work of historians such as Loren Schweninger, whose Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915, appeared in 1990, Walker traces major themes in the history of African American participation in business. She also critiques previous accounts of black enterprise by well-known sociologists and historians. In a time when many researchers prefer micro-history, she presents a tour deforce of synthesis and original research that carries readers through 400 years.

Walker intends to bury myths about black business found in the work of sociologists E. Franklin Frazier (the idea that black consumers do not support black business and that African-Americans lack an entrepreneurial tradition), and especially, Nathan Glazer and Patrick Moynihan's contention that, most importantly, blacks historically had failed to "develop a pattern of saving" (p. xvii-xix). In contrast to most business historians, Walker stresses the role of governments in various periods in creating opportunity for whites. Revising Alfred Chandler, for whom the "visible hand" was management practices, Walker argues that the transformative "visible hand" consisted of government subsidies and support for white business. Placing the history of black enterprise within the larger context of the history of business in what became the United States, Walker argues first, that the legal framework consistently favored whites and discouraged black business; second, that, when African-Americans succeeded in carving out and developing profitable sectors, such as music production and beauty products for mass markets, whites have regularly tried to take over; third, that black business in urban areas often lost out to immigrant business people, who had advantages of education and capital; fourth, that only during the post-civil rights era were government programs available to black business and then only in a limited way; and finally, that today, as for the last 400 years, white racism continues to inhibit the progress of black entrepreneurs and managers.

Going far beyond previous scattered accounts of AfricanAmerican enterprise and synthesizing much previous scholarship, Walker traces the origins of independent economic activity by Blacks to business traditions found in precolonial West Africa, that is, to what her chapter title calls "African Diaspora Commercial Survivalisms." Africans brought to America came from "states propelled by a high degree of both individual and communally based profit-oriented entrepreneurial activities" (p.1) in agriculture, construction, fishing, craft and merchant guilds. Debunking the "stolen people" myth, Walker emphasizes the role of African states, rulers/politicians, merchants, business people, and military in the "African supply side" (p. 17) of the transatlantic market in human merchandise. Part of the "marketability" of people from certain regions consisted in their skill and experience with certain activities, such as mining, cattle-raising, and the culture of rice. Considering the use by enslaved Africans of the colonial period of their slave provision grounds, Walker traces this institution to West African traditions and experiences and argues that Eugene Genovese, among others, was wrong to see these plots of ground as merely a means by which Africans learned to get along without a master. …

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