Once Upon A Time On Wall Street

The struggle to establish an African American presence is a saga of ambition against overwhelming odds

had been in a position with enough influence to shape and embolden the industry and, consequently, the world. But the joke also belied the truth. In fact the first blacks began to work within the securities industry in the early 20th century.

It is not surprising that the black stockbroker who told this joke, nor the generations of black financiers who came after him, knew little about the first African Americans on Wall Street. In one of the biggest industries in the world, a business synonymous with structures of grandeur and people of prestige, the first African Americans on Wall Street barely registered on the map. Traditionally, this business was a patrician profession that ran along the lines of a good-old-boy network. In this exclusive world, deals were made in backrooms and social clubs, institutions that were closed to all outsiders–nobody was more rejected than minorities. Whereas some whites could disguise their social background and education, most people of color could not easily hide their origins and were immediately branded as second-class. African Americans had been trying to engage in the securities industry since the early nineteenth century, yet, they met with stiff resistance.

Wall Street had come to symbolize capitalism and big business because many of the leading brokerages and investment banks claimed it as their home. Underlying each day’s activities, the shares traded, and deals made, was a power structure that was based on relationships. Legacy and heritage were important aspects of the business, providing access and credibility. Nowhere was this embodied more than in the Street’s most recognizable name, J.P. Morgan, who was the son of a banker. Because tradition was paramount, African Americans had no way to enter business on the same levels as their white counterparts simply because blacks had no legacy. Their fathers or friends were not working with securities, and their mere appearance caused waves of unease. This was especially unjust because their ancestors literally helped build Wall Street. Because of the extreme social attitudes that have permeated American history, those builders and their descendants were unable to profit until the 20th century in the very arena they constructed.

As New York City grew into its current role as center of the financial world, African Americans were predictably locked out. Blacks were traded on Wall Street during the 1700s, and the institutionalized attitudes did not change by the 19th century. African Americans also lacked the education or experience with money to successfully operate in the then nascent securities industry. Therefore, the first participation with stocks and bonds came, predictably, from the client side.

Black ownership in equities can be traced back to the early 1800s. Records and folktales reveal emerging black professionals trying to master the rules of investing. The New York African Society for Mutual Relief is believed to have owned $500 in bank stock. Around this time, Stephen Smith, a lumber merchant from Pennsylvania, was the largest shareholder in a thrift named Columbia Bank. Stock ownership also thrived in the South. Marie Louise Panis

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