Welcome to Black history is American history month! As, I was reading this article about historic Black Women Entrepreneurs earlier this month, I realized I was very familiar with two of them: Sheila Johnson and Janice Bryant Howroyd. In fact, I’ve met both of them. Sheila Johnson was present at several receptions I went to as a season ticket holder for the Mystics. Last year, I was at a women’s business conference with Janice Bryant Howroyd. She did a skit in her pajamas. A true supporter of women-owned businesses!
I hadn’t heard of Clara Brown, an entrepreneur and investor, philanthropist and midwife. (When you google her, midwife is the main descriptor under her thumbnail). She was born into slavery in Virginia, was married at 18, and had four children. She lost all of them. One to drowning and three when they were sold to other owners. When her last owner died, she was granted her freedom. She traveled around the country working and saving to re-unite her family and establish other Black people in communities in Colorado.
Clara Brown is in the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. Taking a little internet journey through her life raises a lot of questions that the history doesn’t or can’t answer. Clara owned mining leases and real estate in Colorado but the paperwork was lost to flood and fire.
That’s not the only thing that’s lost when we tell these stories.
Maggie Lena Walker
Another business owner I learned about is Maggie Lena (Mitchell) Walker, the first Black female founder and president of a Bank in the U.S. She was born to a formerly enslaved couple who met after the Civil War as servants to an abolitionist. When her parents married they moved out of that household. They rented another house until being forced into poverty after her father was killed.
She was instrumental in the foundation and operation of a Black newspaper, bank, and department store that drove a thriving economy for the Black community in Richmond. Under her leadership, the bank survived the Great Depression and provided a path to economic stability and home ownership for Black people in Richmond.
Her home, which at one point had 28 rooms and was open to friends and family who needed a place to stay, is a historic landmark in Richmond.
The stories of all four of these women, living and gone, is one of challenge, resilience, obstacles, grit and success as well as philanthropy and legacy building.
What we miss
I’m interested not only in what is known about their histories but also the way we tell their stories. For Clara Brown and Maggie Lena Walker, violence overshadows and defines the twists and turns in their lives. For Clara Brown her struggle is born out of the violence of slavery and separating families. Maggie Lena Walker’s father and son were both killed – one murdered and one in a tragic accident.
There are subtle ways the history lets you know about what they were up against. For Clara Brown, the precariousness of her wealth, and even her freedom, as a formerly enslaved person before the civil war is the backdrop for her stunning accomplishments.
A white man is believed to be Maggie Lena Walker’s father but “there is no record that Draper [her mother] and Cuthbert [the biological father] ever married.” Well, yeah. Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia until 1967, even if we assume that their “relationship” was consensual.
In both stories, the author uses the word “fortunately” to describe chances they had – for Clara to be free and for Lena to attend school. That fortunately is doing a lot of historical heavy lifting.
History and the Future
I’m not a historian, as my historian friend will remind me. And I’m not saying I need the implicit to be explicit to admire these women’s accomplishments. Rather, I’d like to illuminate their stories because they humbled me.
I have everything going for me and have yet to own one bank.
They also reminded me to look deeper into the stories we tell ourselves about history. The obstacles that situate these women as “fortunate,” when so many others weren’t, are still with us. Black Americans continue to face assaults on their freedoms to vote, to learn, to generate wealth. And yet still we see the power of Black owned businesses and Black philanthropists persevering.
On MLK Jr. day, my sons and talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and why he was important. The younger one said, “And now, everything’s changed, right?” We had to tell him that no, not quite. Because without clarity about the past, we won’t have clarity about the future.
The victories will seem final and the losses insurmountable, which is only true if we don’t know our history, Black history, American history.