William Dorsey's Philadelphia and Ours: On the Past and Future of the Black City in America

By Roger Lane | Go to book overview
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Chapter 4
Owners, Artisans, and Entrepreneurs

The problems of Philadelphia's Afro-American businessmen in the decades following the Civil War were related to those which plagued the majority. They too had to face racism and conquer poverty. But the reasons why so few entrepreneurs were able to succeed were more complicated than these alone.

The explanations offered by Afro-American contemporaries themselves ranged from lack of entrepreneurial talent or interest to lack of capital. But the first of these is belied by the biographies of many black Philadelphians; and the second, a handicap shared with other groups, had earlier been conquered by many of them. And neither is enough to explain not only why the community's businesses remained small in number and size but why the relative resources and influence of their owners were actually shrinking. The situation was in fact complex, as different enterprises experienced different histories, not all were in trouble, and ingenious individuals found a variety of ways of making money. The community's entrepreneurial history may best be explained through looking at the specific problems and attitudes illustrated by the lives of some of its more notable businessmen, together with the stories of some of its leading businesses, from cemetery management and catering through the manufacturing trades, barbering, and others, including illegal enterprises of several kinds. Some of the lesser reasons for decline include an apparently widespread distaste for the self-denying, even miserly life-style of some local "success" stories, changing fashions and technology, and simple bad luck. But the most important were related to racism, and to the situation of the black majority, as shown in the last chapter.

Very simply, as the black population grew, and the crime rate rose with it, the old white patronage sank. And because the potential new customers, however numerous, were so very poor, they were largely unable to make up the

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