11 Black Finance Leaders in History
(Originally published Feb. 1, 2021) We dug into the history of finance in the United States to celebrate a few of the Black trailblazers who overcame great adversity to achieve success.
The achievements of Black finance leaders are especially notable considering the barriers to basic financial health for Black people in the U.S. — barriers that include a history of slavery, segregation and racial violence, racist policies and systems that persist and discrimination in everyday life.
The finance industry has been even more challenging — and in some cases, completely inaccessible; Wall Street blocked opportunities to people of color for at least its first 150 years.
We hope these stories of 11 Black financial leaders in history inspire you on your own financial path, business aspirations and pursuit of racial equity.
Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker was the first Black woman to establish and serve as president of a bank in the United States. Walker found that white-owned banks didn't typically take deposits from Black organizations, so, in 1903, she started her own bank, St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, in Richmond, Va., with money gathered from members of the Independent Order of St. Luke, an African American benevolent society. It was renamed Consolidated Bank & Trust after merging with two smaller Black-owned banks in 1930. Walker also chaired the board of directors. The bank was still in operation and was the oldest continuously operated African American-owned bank in the U.S. until 2005, when a series of ownership changes led to Peoples Bancorp acquiring the bank in 2021.
In 1905, Alonzo Herndon founded the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, still one of the largest Black financial institutions in the United States. A former slave, he became a barber and eventually opened the Crystal Palace, a barbershop to elite white men. Historian Dr. Marcellus Barksdale told Georgia Public Broadcasting that, at one time, Herndon owned three barbershops and 100 properties in Atlanta. He became Atlanta's first African American millionaire.
O.W. Gurley moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1906, where he purchased 40 acres of land on what would become Greenwood, a community known as Black Wall Street. Gurley ran many businesses of his own and supported other entrepreneurs in their business endeavors. Greenwood became a thriving center that included law offices, medical practices, luxury shops, restaurants, movie theaters, barbershops and salons. It had its own school system, post office, bank and bus service. Michelle Place, executive director of the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, told History.com, "It is said within Greenwood every dollar would change hands 19 times before it left the community." The town was devastated in 1921 during the 18-hour Tulsa Race Massacre, also known as the Tulsa Race Riot, when a white mob committed what is still one of the worst acts of racial violence in U.S. History.
In 1953, Ernesta Procope founded the E.G. Bowman insurance company in Brooklyn, N.Y. In 1979, she moved the business making it the first Black-owned business on Wall Street. It grew to become the largest minority-owned insurance company in the U.S. Procope became a powerful voice for insurance reform to ensure fair coverage for low-income families. E.G. Bowman's clients have included PepsiCo Inc., Avon Products, Philip Morris International, Time Warner Inc., Tiffany & Co. and General Motors Co.
Arthur George Gaston
Arthur George Gaston was a millionaire entrepreneur who started the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. in 1923 with $500 that grew to an estimated $30 million multi-faceted business portfolio. His businesses included the famous Gaston Motel in Birmingham, Alabama, the only first-class accommodation in the city that accepted Black people at the time. Martin Luther King Jr., and other civil rights leaders stayed there.
Earl G. Graves Sr.
In 1970, Earl G. Graves Sr. started Black Enterprise, a publication that is broadly recognized as the authority on African American business, finance and entrepreneurs. In an April 10, 2020, story about Graves's death, New York Times reporter Daniel E. Slotnik wrote: "The idea of targeting the Black business community was novel, but Mr. Graves pitched it with confidence befitting the multimillionaire publisher and businessman he would become."
George E. Johnson Sr.
George Johnson was the founder of Johnson Products, maker of Afro Sheen and Ultra Sheen. Johnson was born into a sharecropper's family in Mississippi and grew up in Chicago. He started working when he was 8 years old, shining shoes. He also worked bussing tables at a restaurant and setting pins at a bowling alley. He went to work as a production chemist for Black-owned cosmetics firm S.B. Fuller in 1944. With the encouragement of chemist Herbert Martin, Johnson left Fuller in 1954 to found Johnson Products, which became the first Black-owned company listed on the American Stock Exchange. In the 1960s, Johnson was also the exclusive sponsor of the popular show "Soul Train," and he founded Independence Bank in 1964.
Lilla St. John
Lilla St. John was the first Black woman to pass the New York Stock Exchange exam in 1953. She was 25, a mother of two children and crammed for only two months. She became the first certified female investment counselor in the U.S., starting her finance career at Oppenheimer & Company. Prior to her interest in investing, St. John, a soprano singer, hosted her own music television show in Milwaukee.
Clifton Wharton Jr.
In 1987, Clifton Wharton Jr. became one of the first Black CEOs of a Fortune 500 company, heading TIAA-CREF one of the world's largest pension funds with assets of $260 billion. At 16, Wharton went to Harvard where he earned a bachelor's degree, earned a master's degree in international affairs from the Johns Hopkins University School of International Studies and earned a doctorate in economics from the University of Chicago. He was the first African American president of Michigan State University. He went on to manage State University of New York, the country's largest university system. He was appointed by then President Bill Clinton to be the first African American Deputy Secretary of State.
Reginald F. Lewis
Reginald F. Lewis built the first Black-owned business to surpass $1 billion in revenue. Lewis was a Harvard-educated lawyer who is best known for the historic $985-million deal in 1987 to buy TLC Beatrice International Foods on the heels of a 1984 buyout of McCall Pattern Co. In his later years, Lewis became a philanthropist, donating to homeless shelters and neighborhood churches. In 1992, he donated $3 million to Harvard Law School, making him the largest individual donor to the school at that time.
Robert L. Johnson
In 1980, Robert L. Johnson founded Black Entertainment Television (BET), which, in 1991, became the first Black-controlled company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2001, Johnson sold BET to Viacom for $3 billion, making Johnson the first African American billionaire.
- Watch: The History Makers' "Blacks in Finance: A Rich History"
- Read: Greg Bell's "In the Black"
- Read: Black Enterprise, formerly a magazine and now a multi-platform resource for African American business, investing and wealth building
- Read: Russ Rymer's "American Beach — A Saga of Race, Wealth and Memory"
- Watch: "Boss — The Black Experience in Business" on PBS