Black America's Most Historic Entrepreneurs

B.E. Entrepreneurs Conference: Black America’s Most Historic Entrepreneurs

black enterprise marathon Men COVER
By Derek T. Dingle

When BLACK ENTERPRISE presented the A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award honoring entrepreneurial excellence at its Second Annual Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference in 1997, our editors did not honor just one exemplary business leader but a collection of titans. To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the BE 100s - our rankings of the nation's largest black-owned businesses - we saluted the CEOs of companies that had made the list since its inception.

We called them "Marathon Men."

Those honored were John H. Johnson, chairman and CEO of Johnson Publishing Co., home of Ebony and Jet Magazines as well as Fashion Fair Cosmetics; Herman J. Russell, CEO of H. J. Russell & Co., the nation's largest black-owned construction firm; Edward Lewis, CEO & publisher and Clarence Smith, president of Essence Communications, Inc., parent of Essence magazine; Nathan G. Conyers, owner of Conyers Riverside Ford Inc., the oldest black dealership.

Two of the five companies, Johnson Publishing and H.J. Russell & Co. had been well established and demonstrated staying power when the first listing of the then BLACK ENTERPRISE 100 was compiled and published in June 1973. The other three, Essence Communications, Conyers Riverside Ford and BE, were all launched in 1970 at a time when "Black Capitalism" was both a Washington policy initiative and thrust of black business and civil rights leaders promoting self-determination and empowerment.

In the June 1997 issue, our editors wrote of the Marathon Men as being trailblazers "who have paved roads where others feared to tread." At the time, these CEOs maintained that they didn't plan on selling their businesses because "too much blood, too much sweat and too many years have gone into them."