While visiting Durham, N.C., I passed the august North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. building, one of the premiere monuments of African-American business history. It made me reflect on how few skyscrapers mark our major cities to show the evidence of black business.
There’s the Johnson Publishing Co. building in Chicago, the Atlanta Life and Citizens Bank buildings in Atlanta, to name some of the more notable.
The permanence of the businesses inside those structures demonstrates the lasting influence of black entrepreneurs.
I had the chance to work with the Spaulding family as press secretary to Asa T. Spaulding Jr. when he ran for North Carolina secretary of state in 1976. His father and grandfather had been presidents of N.C. Mutual.
But there’s one thing I hadn’t noticed about N.C. Mutual’s building until yesterday. It is next to the Durham police building, which is a fairly tall building as police stations go. But N.C. Mutual rises twice as high.
That’s a good metaphor when the largest black business in a city is twice as high as the police headquarters. One of the reasons we’ve promoted August as National Black Business Month for the past five years is that the number of blacks in business, either as entrepreneurs or managers, is far greater than the much more visible participants in the criminal justice system.
By making a concerted effort to support these firms, we increase the odds that our young people will choose to follow in the steps of the Spauldings and Johnsons.
There are also historic buildings in many communities like the Howard Theatre I passed in Washington this morning, the Dunbar Hotel in Los Angeles, the Southern Aid building in Richmond, VA. Preserving the records of these business is also critical. While in Durham, I was able to learn about a unique coffee importing business in the 1960s between blacks in California and Nigeria because the records were donated to the John Hope Franklin Collection at Duke University.
Even if your neighborhood barber shop is not 20 stories high, it is no less a community landmark. Make sure it endures for the next generation.