At the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., a hallway of glass display cases features more than a century of black entrepreneurial triumphs. In one is a World War II–era mini parachute manufactured by the black-owned Pacific Parachute Company, home to one of the nation’s first racially integrated production plants. Another displays a giant time clock from the R. H. Boyd Publishing Company, among the earliest firms to print materials for black churches and schools. Although small, the exhibit recalls a now largely forgotten legacy: by serving their communities when others wouldn’t, black-owned independent businesses provided avenues of upward mobility for generations of black Americans and supplied critical leadership and financial support for the civil rights movement.
This tradition continues today. Last June, Black Enterprise magazine marked the forty-fourth anniversary of the BE 100s, the magazine’s annual ranking of the nation’s top 100 black-owned businesses. At the top of the list stood World Wide Technology, which, since its founding in 1990, has grown into a global firm with more than $7 billion in revenue and 3,000 employees. Then came companies like Radio One, whose fifty-five radio stations fan out among sixteen national markets. The combined revenues of the BE 100s, which also includes Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions, now totals more than $24 billion, a ninefold increase since 1973, adjusting for inflation.