Last Sunday, in celebration of Black Business Month, I wrote about how, at the end of the Civil War, nearly 120,000 enslaved Arcansans were suddenly expected to go their own way in an unfriendly business world.
Some of the urban enslaved had saved enough money to buy their freedom. Some even opened stores. However, the great majority of the new black citizens soon fell into the clutches of the leasing and leasing economy, the servants of the grain deposit system.
With cotton prices falling during much of the 1880s and 1890s, many white and black farmers fell into deep poverty. The historian Carl Moneyhon summed up the situation: “The lifestyle of the majority of African-Americans was not noticeably different from that of the lower-class whites almost permanently at the bottom of society.”
Nevertheless, a surprising number of freedmen – especially in urban areas – never gave up hope of having their own business.
The situation for blacks got much worse in the 1890s when they were essentially disenfranchised, racial segregation became much more rigid, and violence against blacks soared that no black could be considered truly safe.
By the turn of the century, black Americans, including Arkansans, began to turn inward as they sought economic advancement through self-help – through coordinated business initiatives, through harnessing the “racing market” made possible by the separate economy that accompanied them separation.
Perhaps the best evidence of this new emphasis on business was the founding of the National Negro Business League in 1900. Atlanta University scholar WEB DuBois saw the need for a national business group and began organizing black business leagues in 1899, but Booker T. Washington – DuBois’ polar opposite and future rival – adopted the idea and called an organizational meeting in Boston for the summer of 1900. Seven delegates, including a woman from Hot Springs, represented Arkansas at the Boston meeting.
The Arkansas subsidiary, originally known as the Arkansas Colored Men’s Business League, was founded in late 1902. Rev. JM Conner, Bishop of AME Church, was elected President and John E. Bush, a businessman and political leader, became treasurer.
Bishop Conner was cut from the same cloth as Conservative Booker T. Washington, and it is likely no coincidence that Conner was chosen to head the Arkansas League. Washington used the leagues as a cog in his “Tuskegee Machine” that kept many aspects of black life under tight control. In 1910, Washington attended the Arkansas League annual meeting, where he was warmly welcomed.
The focus of both the state and the Bundesliga was on founding new companies. Hundreds of new black businesses opened in Arkansas during the first decade of the 20th century, from banks to drug stores.
The state’s first black bank opened its doors in Pine Bluff in 1902. The Southwestern Investment, Trust & Banking Association was founded by former lawmaker Jacob N. Donohoo and is located in the local Black Masonic Temple. Capital City Savings Bank was founded in Little Rock in 1903 by the older, wealthy MW Gibbs.
Both banks were initially successful, with deposits at Gibbs’ Bank reaching $ 100,000 within two years. However, the turmoil and upheaval caused by the panic of 1907 helped bring down both banks in 1908.
Several black insurance companies were formed in Arkansas during the 20th century. Since white insurance companies would not insure blacks, fraternal organizations filled much of the void.
Founded in Little Rock in 1888, Mosaic Templars of America was founded by John E. Bush and Chester Keatts to provide funeral insurance, though they should diversify over time and even add a hospital wing to their headquarters in downtown Little Rock. It has been estimated that Black Arkansans spent $ 8 million on fraternal insurance during the 1870-1920 period.
Over time, regular life insurance companies were established by government black investors. Perhaps the best known was Century Life Insurance Co., founded in Little Rock in 1926. One of the prominent organizers was AE Bush, son of the late founder of the Mosaic Templars. Woodmen Union Life of Hot Springs was another well-known black insurance company.
While the banks and insurance companies ultimately failed, thousands of small black-owned businesses flourished in Arkansas’ cities and towns. Little Rock was home to dozens of black pastry chefs dating back to the days of slavery. As recently as 1920, blacks made up 24 percent of the 55 pastry chefs who worked in the city.
Most Arkansas cities with significant black populations had black undertakers. The Josenberger family of Fort Smith were diversified in their holdings, but the family’s funeral home was a mainstay. Perhaps the oldest surviving black funeral home in Arkansas is Dubisson of Little Rock, founded in 1915 – just in time to bury the venerable MW Gibbs, who provided 14 black carriages for his funeral procession.
Skills learned during enslavement often evolved into jobs. In 1871, for example, Little Rock shoemaker Ed Campbell was successful enough to open a shop on Main Street. The 1908 town register of Pine Bluff listed 13 cobblers, five of whom were black.
Solomon Winfrey – the progenitor of a dynasty of bricklayers and plasterers – found that in Little Rock in 1871 the brickwork skills he learned as a slave served him well. That same year, the black saddler Ben Wood lived in Little Rock, while the formerly enslaved Harmon Scruggs had a forge on Main Street.
New business ideas emerged. In 1920 Little Rock was home to three Black-owned drug stores. One of these druggists was WO Foster, who sold his own patented drug: Creo-Tolu Compound, a “well-known cough and cold remedy”.
Black-owned barber shops were ubiquitous in larger cities. Argenta, now North Little Rock, was home to six barbershops in 1890, four of which were owned by Blacks. Beauty salons aren’t as old as barber shops, but they have quickly emerged as one of the few business opportunities for Black women. By 1920 there were 16 black hairdressers in Little Rock, making up 70 percent of the total.
While this column and the previous one barely touch the subject, I hope they remind us that generations of Black Arkansans have persevered in trying to join the state’s economic mainstream.
Tom Dillard is a retired historian and archivist who lives near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Send him an email at [email protected]