Many African Americans don’t even know a single Black entrepreneur. Most American Blacks are unaware of the roles or accomplishments of Black entrepreneurs. So, the passing of one of the country’s most influential contemporary Black businessman should be duly noted. Earlier this month, Alvin Boutte Sr. died in his home in Hazel Crest, Ill., outside Chicago. He was 82.
Boutte fits the mold of a successful Black entrepreneur. He was born in Lake Charles, La., and earned a degree in pharmacy from New Orleans’ historically-Black Xavier University. When he later moved to Chicago, the pharmacy profession gave him a foothold in the city’s business community. Boutte started owning and operating his own drugstore, which later grew into a chain of stores.
Boutte took pride, and identified with, his family’s Creole heritage. Maybe because of his orientation and family bonds, throughout his life Boutte was alert to business opportunity and success and was known as “tremendously ambitious.” Boutte’s successes offer proof of the advantages of Blacks working together. In his dealings with Chicago’s Black businesspeople, Boutte became acquainted with George Johnson, purveyor of Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen hair products, and the two started the Independence Bank, which became the largest Black-owned bank in the U.S. Independence was the first Black-owned bank to purchase a substantial white-owned bank when it acquired Drexel National Bank.
Boutte is to be emulated for the way he “thought and acted Black.” Chicago’s ground-breaking Black business community also included John H. Johnson, publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines. “When people talk about Chicago being the mecca for Black business, it was because of that generation of African-American leaders who showed the way,” said John Rogers, chief executive officer of Ariel Investments.
When Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights campaign needed funds to bankroll the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Boutte convened a meeting of Chicago’s Black business leaders to raise $55,000. “He invited Dr. King to Chicago … he was fundamental to those movements for justice,” said Jesse Jackson. A unique blend of businessman and activist, Boutte understood how success in business and political progress are both critical to the growth of Black communities. Boutte said that while he never thought of himself as one who would leave a legacy and “hopes that people will remember him as honest and successful.”
The spirit of Boutte continues in the actions and deeds of a select few in Black enclaves. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of Black-owned businesses in the U.S. increased to 1.9 million. Black-owned firms saw their receipts rise to $137.5 billion during those years. The average revenue at those businesses was $72,000 a year, compared to an average of $490,000 at those owned by whites.
For African Americans that came of age during the Civil Rights Movement, much introspective on our roles and relationships to capitalism is required. Integration distracted Blacks in the 1960s and ’70s from building our own businesses and financial infrastructures. Too many Blacks are ignorant of the fact that the majority of new jobs and opportunities are created in the nation’s small business sector. Since 1987 the number of Black-owned businesses soared. In 1987, America’s first Black corporate billionaire, the late Reginald F. Lewis, stood atop the Black Enterprise 100 Industrial/Service list. That year his TLC Beatrice International Holdings, an international food company, had revenue of $1.8 billion.
Alvin Boutte and Robert Maynard both enhanced the profile and recognition of Black entrepreneurs. Each has now passed on, but the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education’s legacy is still being written. The Institute is a non-profit corporation dedicated to expanding opportunities for minority journalists at the nation’s newspapers. Robert Maynard became the editor of the Oakland Tribune and bought it in 1983, becoming the first African American to own a major metropolitan newspaper. — (NNPA)
William Reed is publisher of “Who’s Who in Black Corporate America.”