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Feb 27

Businesses a key part of black history – Finance and Commerce

America’s celebration of Black History hasn’t always been a monthlong affair; it started out with a “Negro History Week” in mid-February until 1976 when President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month.

The country’s college students were one of the driving forces behind the extension, pushing for increased awareness of the historic contributions of African Americans – particularly on campus and in the educational system, where black history was a rarely visited topic.

Now, 40 years later, it’s easy to see how Black History Month can be applied to history classes. Iconic figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman are recognized and emphasized..

But how are American colleges handling the business aspects of black history?

For Dr. Juliet E. K. Walker, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the founder of the school’s Center of Black Business History, Entrepreneurship and Technology, black business history is not a subject she visits only during Black History Month. It is a topic she includes year-round.

Her courses explore the extent to which the sale of slaves produced commodities that generated the nation’s wealth up to the Civil War, and runs up to more modern aspects of black business history, including buyouts of black businesses, such as Viacom’s 2001 purchase of BET, parent of Black Entertainment Television.

While Walker believes historians of American business history focus mostly on how key figures influenced the country’s economic history – such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and so on – she acknowledged that these historians are including issues of diversity.

“For the most part, [they discuss] assessments of black employment in white corporate America,” she said. “Is there discussion of wealthy blacks? Probably – like Oprah, Michael Jordan, Robert F. Smith, Beyoncé and Jay-Z.”

Walker also wrote a book in 1995 titled “Free Frank,” a biography of a South Carolina slave who, once freed, became a successful frontiersman. The text is a favorite of Ken Lipartito, a history professor at Florida International University.

Like Walker, Lipartito does not wait until Black History Month to discuss black business history. Lipartito includes explorations of minority business history, in addition to the figures that Walker mentioned.

“I make sure to emphasize the diversity of actors and their experiences with regard to entrepreneurship,” said Lipartito. “So I do not confine myself to the classic ‘big names’ such as John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, though I do teach about them, as well.  But I also have readings and classes that deal with African Americans, immigrants and women as entrepreneurs.”

Lipartito doesn’t necessarily draw a line between minority business history and the places of minorities in society as a whole.

“I like to emphasize how entrepreneurship is not just about great inventions in the way [economist Joseph] Schumpeter describes it, but changing society and expectations,” said Lipartito. “So African Americans challenging racial assumptions about who can be a success or women shattering glass ceilings – they are entrepreneurs who are reworking our understanding of the economy and social roles and norms.”

In the Twin Cities, neither the University of Minnesota nor St. Thomas University offer specific courses on black business history. But both have courses and programs that intersect with the topic.

The U of M’s Carlson School of Management offers several scholarships “with preferred selection criteria for diverse candidates,” according to its website. In addition, the Carlson School is a sponsor of a minority entrepreneur initiative developed by the MN Cup, which is the nation’s largest statewide competition for start-up businesses. It awards an annual Minority Entrepreneur Prize.

St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business offers a minor in American Culture and Difference. On Feb. 21, St. Thomas held an Opus Distinguished Speakers Panel on economic development and innovation in urban communities. The school also collaborated with Greater MSP, an economic development nonprofit, on a survey of local professionals of color, focusing on their workplace experiences.

St. Thomas also funds and provides office space for the annual Forum on Workplace Inclusion, which began as a video conference in 1988 and now may be the largest event of its kind, according to Executive Director Steve Humerickhouse. This year’s Forum will be held at the Minneapolis Convention Center on March 28-30. It will involve more than 1,300 participants from 40 states, 11 countries and more than 300 organizations and companies.

Louis Hyman, an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial & Labor Relations, echoed Walker and Lipartito in their beliefs that black business history is not just a temporary subject; it’s a topic tied intrinsically to black history as a whole.

“Black business history is a core part of my syllabus,” Hyman said. “The struggle for black business was, since emancipation, deeply connected with the struggle for black political freedom.”

In particular, Hyman draws connection between African Americans’ desires for economic autonomy and the civil rights movement.

“I think it is important to study black business because so much of the civil rights movement is cast as ‘progressive’ when really a great deal of it was a conservative, or at least, pro-business movement,” said Hyman. “African Americans demanded the right to spend their money and to invest their money, like white people. This is radical under conditions of white supremacy, but not radical in a market economy. What is amazing is that white supremacy lost out.”

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