This year, BLACK ENTERPRISE celebrates the 4th anniversary of its roster of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses—The BE 100s. To commemorate the significance of this collective’s widespread impact on black business and economic development as well as American industry over four decades, we have presented 45 milestones moments. As part of this tribute, we continue our yearlong countdown.
Today we reveal No. 27 in the web series “Great Moments in Black Business.”
2002: With the acquisition of three Fitzgeralds casinos for $149 million, Don Barden becomes the first African American to wholly own a casino in the nation’s gambling capital.
Rising from meager beginnings to become a self-made multimillionaire African American entrepreneur, the late Don Barden was a trailblazer in America’s gaming industry.
First-Ever Black Vegas Casino Operator
Barden made history when one of his companies acquired three Fitzgeralds casinos for $149 million, making him the first black to own casino operations in Las Vegas. The transaction placed his gaming enterprise in the industry’s largest U.S. market and at the same time, broke barriers within the sector.
Barden added to his empire—he had already owned casinos in Gary, Indiana; Tunica, Mississippi; and Black Hawk, Colorado—by purchasing the Fitzgeralds properties from bankruptcy court. In fact, Barden used $14 million of his own money and raised $150 million from 40 institutional investors to seal the deal and upgrade operations.
The daring entrepreneur’s big gamble paid off. It bumped revenues of Barden Cos. Inc., placing it among the top 25 of BE Industrial/Service Companies in the early 2000s. Observers hailed Barden’s move as a major victory in bringing much-needed diversity to the industry. “It has the same ramification [for the Las Vegas gaming industry] that Jackie Robinson had to baseball,” Gene Collins, president of the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP told the Las Vegas Sun at the time.” It opens all sorts of opportunities for African Americans because someone has to be first.”
First African American to Build an Urban-Based Cable TV Company
Making history was nothing new for Barden. In addition to being the first African American to own a casino corporation outright, he beat the odds by controlling multimillion-dollar companies in other industries that locked out blacks from ownership participation. As such, he would become the first black businessman to build a cable TV system for urban markets as well as a major player in commercial estate development over the course of his 40-year career.
He shared his deal-making philosophy in the BLACK ENTERPRISE book, Lessons From The Top: “I have learned to look for businesses that make money while I sleep. I like to acquire any business that doesn’t require an exorbitant amount of time and capital to turn it around. Yet, I want to be able to expand the core businesses. I have been able to do that with real estate, cable, and gaming. If you find viable businesses with solid management, you are not drained by the day-to-day operations. You can scope out other opportunities.”
The ninth of 13 children raised in Inkster, Michigan, he attended Central State University in Ohio with the goal of pursuing a legal career. But he ultimately turned to entrepreneurship. His first venture was a record store that he opened in Lorain, Ohio, at the age of 21 with $500 in savings. From there, he launched several businesses, including a real estate development firm, a nightclub, and a weekly newspaper, The Lorain County Times, in Lorain. He was also Lorain’s first elected black city council member.
By 1981, Barden bought an interest in a cable television station in Lorain and formed Barden Communications Inc. He expanded his cable system to include communities in his hometown of Inkster and the Detroit metro area, growing gross revenues from $600,000 to $91.2 million in a decade. By 1992, BCI earned the No. 5 position on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 and BE 100s Company of the Year honors—for the first time. By 1994, he sold the company to Comcast Cable in 1994 for more than $100 million.
Two years later, he ventured into the casino gaming industry when he acquired and operated the Majestic Star Casino, a riverboat casino in Gary, Indiana. After an unsuccessful bid to buy a casino in Detroit, he acquired the Fitzgeralds properties. In 2003, BLACK ENTERPRISE named Barden Cos. as Company of the Year—the only entrepreneur to receive such recognition in two different industries within a 10-year span.
But not all of Barden’s ventures were proven winners. In 2009, the Majestic Star Casino was forced to file for bankruptcy protection.
Such setbacks, however, did not keep BLACK ENTERPRISE from heralding his myriad accomplishments. As part of its 40th-anniversary celebration in 2010—a year before Barden’s untimely death due to complications from lung cancer—it ranked him No. 21 on the roster of “Titans: The 40 Most Powerful African Americans in Business.” That same year, he also received the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award, BE‘s top honor for business excellence. Barden left a legacy for being one of the most honored and respected black business leaders of his generation, and mentor to several generations of black professionals and entrepreneurs.