Many African Americans don’t even know one single Black entrepreneur. Most American Blacks are unaware of the roles or accomplishments of Black entrepreneurs. So, the death of one of the country’s most influential Black businessmen should be duly noted. In early April 2012, Alvin Boutte Sr. died at 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 owned and operated his own drugstore, which he later expanded 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 sensed business opportunities and was known as being “tremendously ambitious.” Boutte’s successes offer proof of the advantages of Blacks working together. In his dealings among Chicago’s Black businesspeople, Boutte became acquainted with the late George Johnson, purveyor of Ultra Sheen and Afro Sheen hair products, and the two started Chicago’s Independence Bank, which became the largest black-owned bank in the United States. Independence was the first African-American-owned bank to purchase a substantially funded 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 the late 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, 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 the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Boutte embodied a unique blend of business savvy and activism and 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 hoped that people would 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 United States 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 versus an average of $490,000 at White businesses.
For African Americans that came of age during the Civil Rights movement much introspection 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.
Boutte and Robert Maynard both enhanced the profile and recognition of Black entrepreneurs. Each has now died, 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. Maynard became the editor of The Oakland Tribune and bought it in 1983, becoming the first African American to own a major metropolitan newspaper. The Maynard Institute has been at the forefront in celebrating the entrepreneurial achievements of African Americans for 40 years and currently sponsors Richard Prince’s column called “Journal-isms.”
(William Reed is head of the Business Exchange Network and available for speaking/seminar projects via the Bailey Group.org)