Business

Richard Robert Wright, Sr.

Richard Robert Wright, Sr.

Richard Robert Wright, Sr.

Despite being born a slave on May 16, 1855, Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr. was a post-reconstruction pioneer and trailblazer, who made remarkable contributions in education, banking, politics, publishing, journalism, real estate, and civic affairs. Among his many accomplishments, he founded a high school, a college, and a bank; and owned several newspapers.

He also founded the National Freedom Day Association, and worked toward establishing a national day to commemorate freedom for all people.

On February 1, 1941, Major Wright invited national and local leaders to meet in Philadelphia to formulate plans to set aside February 1st each year to memorialize the signing of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution by President Lincoln on February 1, 1865. One year after Wright’s death in 1947, a bill passed both U.S. Houses of Congress, making February 1st National Freedom Day, and was signed into law on June 30, 1948.  Continue reading

N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company

Officers of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1911

Officers of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company in 1911

Since its beginning in 1898, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company has grown to become one of the nation’s most widely-known and successful business institutions. It is the only insurance company domiciled in North Carolina with a charter dated before 1900. North Carolina Mutual is the oldest and largest African American life insurance company in the United States.

The Company’s seven organizers were men who were active in business, educational, medical and civic life of the Durham community. An early financial crisis tested their resolve and the company was reorganized in 1900 with only John Merrick and Dr. Aaron M. Moore remaining. Charles C. Spaulding was named General Manager, under whose direction the company grew and achieved national prominence.  Continue reading

Hampton Institute

Mary Smith Peake

The year was 1861. The American Civil War had shortly begun and the Union Army held control of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Virginia at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. In May of that year, Union Major General Benjamin Butler decreed that any escaping slaves reaching Union lines would be considered “contraband of war” and would not be returned to bondage. This resulted in waves of enslaved people rushing to the fort in search of freedom. A camp to house the newly freed slaves was built several miles outside the protective walls of Fort Monroe. It was named “The Grand Contraband Camp” and functioned as the United States’ first self-contained African American community.

In order to provide the masses of refugees some kind of education, Mary Peake, a free Negro, was asked to teach, even though an 1831 Virginia law forbid the education of slaves, free blacks and mulattos. She held her first class, which consisted of about twenty students, on September 17, 1861 under a simple oak tree. This tree would later be known as the Emancipation Oak and would become the site of the first Southern reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Today, the Emancipation Oak still stands on the Hampton University campus as a lasting symbol of the promise of education for all, even in the face of adversity.

Madame C.J. Walker

Madame C.J. Walker

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on a Delta, Louisiana plantation, this daughter of former slaves transformed herself from an uneducated farm laborer and laundress into one of the twentieth century’s most successful, self-made women entrepreneurs.

Orphaned at age seven, she often said, “I got my start by giving myself a start.” She and her older sister, Louvenia, survived by working in the cotton fields of Delta and nearby Vicksburg, Mississippi. At 14, she married Moses McWilliams to escape abuse from her cruel brother-in-law, Jesse Powell.

Her only daughter, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia Walker) was born on June 6, 1885. When her husband died two years later, she moved to St. Louis to join her four brothers who had established themselves as barbers. Continue reading

William Reuben Pettiford

The Penny Savings Bank, founded by Reverend William Reuben Pettiford in Birmingham in 1890, was the first black-owned and black-operated financial institution in Alabama. Created as a necessity of de facto and later codified segregation, the bank backed and encouraged development of black businesses, especially in urban areas, as well as savings by African Americans, until its closing in 1915.

William Reuben Pettiford

William Reuben Pettiford was born to free parents in North Carolina in 1847. He moved to Alabama in 1869 to seek better educational and financial opportunities. After seven years of studying while holding down jobs, Pettiford completed his degree at the Lincoln Normal School (a predecessor of Alabama State University) in Marion, Perry County. In 1877, Pettiford became a teacher at Selma University and simultaneously entered the theological department of the school, taking courses from President Harrison Woodsmall.

Three years later, he voluntarily severed his connection with the school to become pastor of the First Baptist Church of Union Springs, where he also served as principal of the city school for African Americans. In 1883, he accepted the pastorate of the First Colored Baptist Church of Birmingham, later named the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, at the urging of state Baptist leaders and educator Booker T. Washington, who assured him that he could provide necessary leadership for Birmingham’s expanding black population.

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