Black Enterprise was just a modest monthly magazine when I founded it 40 years ago—just me; a few brave forward-thinking advertisers like Pepsi, ExxonMobil, and General Motors; and a small but spirited and talented staff. Oh, and one other person who did just about everything there is to do to put out a magazine back then—a combination writer, editor, proofreader, layout designer, sales director, office manager, and vice president in charge of shutting down the publisher’s bad ideas–my wife of 50 years, Barbara Graves.
This was the Black Enterprise that Barbara and I brought into being and nurtured into one of the most respected magazines in the country. But now, four decades later, there is the multimedia entity that Black Enterprise has become, and that’s due to the creativity and leadership of my sons, Earl Jr., Johnny, and Michael, and dedicated staff, who have all contributed to the company’s continued relevance and success, and of whom I am extraordinarily proud.
It’s impossible to write this–my 40th anniversary Publisher’s Page column–and not think about the extraordinary journey we as African Americans have traveled–from slavery to the White House. Even more remarkable to me is how much of that journey I’ve lived to witness.
Just to be clear, I just turned 75 earlier this year. That’s old enough to have made one of my earliest visits to the American South riding a segregated bus. Ironically, I was on my way to ranger and airborne school to serve my country as a U.S. soldier, a full decade before my country saw fit to afford me or anyone who looked like me the full freedoms and privileges guaranteed by the founding fathers.
But here’s what moves me to my core: Having lived through that era, here I stand half a century later and Barack Obama is Commander in Chief. In May, at the 15th annual Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference + Expo, we began our 40th anniversary celebration in Atlanta, the flagship city of a New South–a South that is viewed by more and more African Americans not as the home of Jim Crow and fire hoses and attack dogs, but as a place of renewal, opportunity, and advancement.
So what’s responsible for this change? Social scientists and historians will give you different answers, but in my view nothing had a more significant impact on the country’s social progress on matters of racial justice, acceptance, and opportunity than African American entrepreneurship.
During times when opportunities for African Americans in business were limited by racist exclusion, black entrepreneurs managed to carve out financial opportunities for themselves as restaurateurs, funeral home directors, bankers, insurers, auto dealers, and innovators in such industries as cosmetics, entertainment, and agriculture. The profits from those early ventures did not merely line the pockets of their owners; they were invested into the social advancement of African Americans as a group.