The 10 Most Important Black Business Luminaries

Visitors to name the 20th century's greatest

Percy Sutton

(1921-2009) The Communicator. As a descendant of entrepreneurs (both his father and grandfather were businessmen), Sutton took a mom-and-pop radio station and created Inner City Broadcasting Corp. in New York in 1972, and built a multimillion-dollar broadcasting and media giant. Sutton ultimately became chairman emeritus of the company. Inner City’s products include cable TV, TV production, and radio stations, among them New York City’s WLIB-AM and WLIB-FM, later renamed WBLS, which hovers at the top of New York City’s ratings. Education was key in Sutton’s household, where he was schooled by his family as well as in the traditional classroom. A lawyer by trade, Sutton set up a law practice with his brother, Oliver, in Harlem. He and his family were also on the front lines of the civil rights movement, setting up protests, boycotts, and freedom rides — anything to advance the black cause in America. After 11 years of politicking, Sutton was elected to the New York Assembly, and in 1969 he was elected Manhattan borough president, one of the most powerful positions in the city.

John H. Johnson

(1918-2005) The Innovator. In 1942, Johnson used his mother’s furniture as collateral to secure a $500 loan to start the publication Negro Digest, the forerunner to Ebony magazine. To build the magazine’s circulation, Johnson presold subscriptions, and subsequently asked friends to request it at newsstands. He parlayed his dream of publishing “a magazine of Negro comment” into a “black gold mine.” Johnson ultimately became chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Co. Inc. in Chicago, the largest black-owned publishing and cosmetics company in the world. Its revenues in 1999 were $387 million. Johnson sees the world as full of small battles rather than major wars. He says, “I always advise young people to dream small dreams, because small dreams can be achieved, and once you achieve a small dream and a small success, it gives you confidence to go on to the next big step.”

Booker T. Washington

(1856-1915) The Educator. Born in slavery on a tobacco farm in Piedmont, Virginia, Washington’s life was shaped by the African American quest for education and equality and the post-Civil War struggle over political participation. As a youngster, Washington went to school not for an education but to carry the books of his slave master’s children. At the time, it was illegal to educate slaves. “I had the feeling that to get into a schoolhouse and study would be about the same as getting into paradise,” he wrote. The cornerstone of Washington’s philosophy was self-reliance born of hard work. Washington walked as much as 500 miles from West Virginia to Virginia to attend Hampton Institute, which at the time was a new school for black students. In 1881, Washington founded Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), and was recognized as the nation’s foremost black educator.