25 black businesspeople who helped shape America
Every year in the United States we celebrate the achievements of African Americans through Black History Month. Made official in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, Black History Month occurs every February and was created to teach us about the contributions Black people have made that were too often left out of the history books.
Today, Black History Month isn’t only taught inside of classrooms; many websites, publications, and media outlets use the opportunity to highlight Black individuals who have contributed greatly to American society. Adults and children alike can act as students and become educated on Black history, which is synonymous with American history.
It would be impossible to list every single way Black people have made contributions throughout the years, so we at Stacker narrowed the field a bit and focus on business. We reviewed magazines, academic journals, newspapers, and other outlets who focus on Black history to compile a list of 25 Black businesspeople who helped shape American society. Since business affects many aspects of American life, these are people who impacted not only American business but also the economy, politics, culture, and more. From slavery to the civil rights movement to today’s top earners, black people have helped to make the United States the country you see today.
In this list you’ll see some familiar faces you may have learned about in school, and business leaders who affect your daily life that you never knew about. Some you may even recognize from prime-time television. There are modern-day leaders who continue to do great things and people who revolutionized business many years ago. Although this is not meant to be a fully comprehensive list, these are 25 Black businesspeople who have helped shape America.
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Madam C. J. Walker
A staple in most school curriculums today, Madam C. J. Walker is revered as the first Black woman to become a self-made millionaire, Walker created an empire by being the sole investor in her own hair-care business. She showed that the keys to a successful business are answering a specific need and catering to an audience you know well. Today Black-owned hair-care companies are thriving and enjoying millions in revenue.
Robert L. Johnson & Sheila Johnson
Co-founders of the groundbreaking cable network Black Entertainment Television (BET)—the first network dedicated to Black culture, which also was the first business on the New York Stock Exchange to have Black owners—Robert and Sheila Johnson made history again when they became the first Black billionaires in 2001 after selling BET to Viacom. Though they later divorced, both Robert and Sheila have separately been extremely successful business people in their own rights. Robert achieved another first in 2003 when he purchased the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, making him the first Black majority owner of an NBA team. Sheila produces and funds films that highlight Black stories.
[Pictured: Robert L. Johnson (left) and Sheila Johnson (right).]
You may know him as one judge from the hit television show “Shark Tank,” but Daymond John has been an entrepreneur for many years. He founded the wildly popular streetwear brand FUBU in 1992 which revolutionized the clothing industry and brought streetwear to the masses—now most high-end brands want in on streetwear. Additionally, John has written books, won Emmys, created new businesses, and even served as Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship during the Obama administration.
Robert F. Smith
Known for being the richest Black man in America, Robert F. Smith made his billions in the finance and investment world. He is the CEO of Vista Equity Partners, a company he founded in 2000 that focuses on the software and tech world. Smith recently made headlines for his surprise generosity when he announced he would pay off the debts of everyone in the graduating class of Morehouse College during his commencement speech.
Janice Bryant Howroyd
There are few things more inspiring than achieving the American dream—turning nothing into an extraordinary business. Janice Bryant Howroyd did just that when she founded the ACT-1 Group and turned it into the first billion-dollar business run by a Black woman, an act made even more impressive as a women-led workforce management corporation.
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The second-richest African American man on our list, David Steward is well known in the tech realm for his company World Wide Technology (WWT). Another person who started from humble beginnings, Steward launched his company in 1990. He even counts the U.S. government as one of WWT’s high-profile clients.
[Pictured: David Steward and Thelma Steward.]
John H. Johnson
John H. Johnson made a huge impact on the magazine and publishing world. Best known for being the founder of Ebony and Jet magazines, Johnson’s publications were the first to cater to Black audiences and celebrate Black culture during the ‘40s and ‘50s. The legacy of these publications still exists today, with digital media continuing the work online for a new generation of readers.
An up-and-comer tackling economic issues, Chloe McKenzie founded a company in 2015 that aims to teach financial literacy to students in the most underprivileged areas in the United States. Named BlackFem, the company’s goal is to help close the wealth gap that exists especially for Black women. Through a community-centered approach, McKenzie wants young Black girls to have a leg up in society rather than start at a deficit.
Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker in 1903 became the first woman to open a bank—a milestone made more striking by the fact that her parents had been enslaved. Throughout her lifetime, Walker worked to empower Black people and encourage them to create their own businesses as she had done.
Helping to shape American entertainment culture, Franklin Leonard created a company and website called The Black List, which accepts unproduced scripts and creates a space where submitters can have their scripts read by the community and potentially sent to producers, actors, and Hollywood bigwigs. Through this method, many people have seen their movies made successfully without having to navigate the networking usually required to get the right people to take a chance on your project.
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Robert Sengstacke Abbott
Another publishing mogul, Robert Sengstacke Abbott founded the weekly Chicago Defender in 1905. One of the first self-made Black millionaires in the United States, his newspaper spread the word about the opportunities that could be found in the North and encouraged others to move there.
[Pictured: Mr. John Sengstacke, nephew of Robert S. Abbott, part-owner and general manager of the Chicago Defender in March 1942.]
A creative visionary, Gordon Parks worked as a composer, director, photographer, and songwriter, to name a few talents. The first Black staffer at Life magazine as well as the first Black director of a major motion picture (“Shaft”), Parks could tell stories through the eyes of a Black man and shape the way Americans perceived Black stories.
[Pictured: Directors Gordon Parks (R) and Spike Lee (L) at The Gordon Parks Independent Film Awards for African American Filmmakers in New York City on October 3, 2001.]
As the first African American woman to attend (and graduate) Yale Law School in 1931, Jane Bolin began her career impressively but didn’t stop there. She became the first Black female judge in the United States where she was a champion for workers’ rights and fought against discrimination in the workplace.
Maria P. Williams
A true triple threat, Maria P. Williams was the first Black woman to write, produce, and act in her own movie. The film, “The Flames of Wrath,” released in 1923 and paved the way for the powerhouse Black female directors we have today.
[Pictured: Marla Williams.]
The very first Black American to receive a patent was Thomas Jennings in 1821 for “dry scouring”—a precursor to the dry cleaning methods we have today. Despite being born before the Civil War, Jennings secured a patent because he was born a free man in the North rather than the slaveholding states of the South.
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Marie Van Brittan Brown
Today home security systems can be bought at your local store, and you can use your phone to view the inside of your home or doorstep from anywhere in the world. Back in the ‘60s however, things weren’t as simple—until Marie Van Brittan Brown came along. She designed the first at-home closed-circuit security system decked out with a panic button, monitor, and two-way radio system. Without her patents, modern security systems wouldn’t exist.
Rose Marie McCoy
Though you may not recognize Rose Marie McCoy’s name, you’ll probably recognize the famous names of the people who sang her songs. Does Elvis Presley ring a bell? McCoy wrote many hits for him and other popular white male singers during the ‘50s. Though she wasn’t allowed to sing them herself, she shaped music and pop culture through her songwriting.
Frederick McKinley Jones
An entrepreneur and an inventor, Frederick McKinley Jones made major contributions to society during World War II when his new refrigeration equipment was utilized to transport food and blood to soldiers. The refrigeration method meant that trucks could keep things colder for much longer.
The next time you get into an elevator, thank Alexander Miles for arriving at your floor safely. In the late 19th century, Miles created the automatic closing doors still seen in many elevators today that ensure passengers don’t have to operate the doors themselves and risk falling into the shaft.
Charles Hamilton Houston
One of the most influential attorneys in American history, Charles Hamilton Houston was responsible for helping to eradicate segregation in the United States. He could prove that “separate but equal” only led to inequality and changed the landscape of the modern-day U.S.
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One of the best-known choreographers of all time, Alvin Ailey started the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 1958, which exposed people around the country, and the world, to modern dance by all different ethnicities rather than the majority white dance companies. His legacy still stands today as the dance group remains extremely popular.
[Pictured: Dancers with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform at Lincoln Center.]
Reading this list on a monitor that has color? Well, you can thank Mark Dean for that. The computer scientist and engineer was the first Black person to be named an IBM fellow and is credited with inventing the color PC monitor in the ‘90s.
Lonnie G. Johnson
While Lonnie G. Johnson has an impressive resume, including serving as an Air Force and NASA engineer, his invention of the Super Soaker water gun is his most famous (and fun) accomplishment. Created in the ‘80s, the Super Soaker started off slow but eventually made millions of dollars in revenue.
Known as the first Black person to complete their residency in ophthalmology, Patricia Bath put her medical school knowledge to good use when she also became the first African American female doctor to receive a medical patent. Bath created a cataract treatment device back in 1986, receiving the patent in 1988. She helped many people gain better vision care.
Erin A. Simon
Rounding out the list is another up-and-comer taking the world of eSports—competitive video game playing—by storm. As a host of a live-streamed show, Erin A. Simon can bring a fresh perspective to a booming industry previously dominated by young white males and shape the narrative of the next chapter of gamers.
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