Once Upon A Time On Wall Street

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

encouraged their pioneering spirit, and taught them that seemingly impossible goals were possible.

Arguably, the most influential black entrepreneur of the 20th century was Arthur Gaston, the Birmingham, Alabama, native who started with $500 and increased his wealth to between $30 million and $40 million. [In June 1992, this magazine named Arthur Gaston the BE Entrepreneur of the Century.] He founded the Booker T. Washington Insurance Company in 1926 selling policies to black steelworkers. With vision and a legendary work ethic, Gaston used the insurance company as the foundation of an empire that included Citizen Trust Bank, hotels, and radio stations. Other early black business luminaries included Alonzo Herndon, a former slave who founded Atlanta Life Insurance; John Merrick, A.M. Moore, and C.C. Spaulding, co-founders of North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance in 1898; and Madame C.J. Walker, the hair-care products mogul. Even though these people did not work directly with securities, many early African Americans who worked on Wall Street would credit them with helping to develop a capitalist framework in which to think and dream.

The black entrepreneurs who surfaced on Wall Street in the late 1960s aimed to create companies that would work within the mainstream of the securities industry and compete for its most lucrative businesses. They were determined to break into the old boys clubs, including the New York Stock Exchange, where many of the Street’s elite fostered connections and made deals. As social change swept through American cities, it appeared that Wall Street would have to adjust accordingly, and if it did, a few entrepreneurs were ready to capitalize on it.

With all the obstacles that stood in their way, it was a wonder that anybody had the courage (or stupidity, depending on your point of view) to create a bigger black firm than those that had just failed. Still, a few men were so filled with ambition and frustration that they were willing to take the gamble. One such person was Willie L. Daniels, an institutional salesman who had spent a decade on Wall Street working at several firms, constantly searching for better opportunities. But, after years of looking, he concluded that he would never get his fair share working for others.

Such discrepancies convinced Daniels that the road of independence was the path he should take. However, he could not have imagined how difficult that road would be.

With some financing in place, Daniels was well on his way to making history. He scrolled through all the names in his card file and eventually assembled a staff of “personal friends and business brothers” to support his efforts at gathering additional resources. The failure of so many brokerages at the time was vivid proof that Wall Street is a capital-intensive game; Daniels knew that he needed more than the government money he had been promised. He paid his small staff a stipend and worked at Smith Barney to fund his employees. Their job was to research markets and statistics to show the great promise of the black market

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