Thaddeus Swanek Thaddeus Swanek
Senior Writer and Editor, Strategic Communications, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


February 26, 2024


The Black business community has rich entrepreneurial roots and has played—and continues to play—a vital role in U.S. history.

Since slaves landed in the British colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, to the golden age of Black-owned businesses in the early 1900s, to today’s growing ecosystem of thriving businesses—a spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship has been prevalent in the Black community.

To help dive further into this history, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Senior Vice President of Strategic Alliances and Outreach, Rick Wade, sat down with two prominent business leaders to help tell these important stories and highlight the issues Black-owned businesses still face today.

Ron Busby, president and CEO of U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. (Courtesy of Ron Busby)
Ron Busby, president and CEO of U.S. Black Chambers, Inc. (Courtesy of Ron Busby)

According to Ron Busby, president and CEO of U.S. Black Chambers, Inc., the first golden age of Black business began shortly after the Civil War as freed African Americans turned to entrepreneurship out of necessity.

“It was a combination. For the first time, Black Americans had resources,” said Busby. “And in many communities, segregation was at its utmost level, right after Emancipation. So, we were forced into opening and starting our own businesses because that was the only place we could buy and sell products.”  

In the following decades, numerous Black business districts emerged: the Hayti District of Durham, North Carolina; Bronzeville in Chicago; Sweet Auburn of Atlanta; the Ville in St. Louis; Black Bottom in Detroit, “Black Downtown” in Columbia, South Carolina, and the Greenwood District in Tulsa (also known as “Black Wall Street”) to name a few.

“Faced with limited avenues providing for our families, communities, and legacies, enterprise ownership and development became a primary pathway for Black individuals to pursue the American Dream and attain full liberation and equality,” said Dr. Ken L. Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League

By the early 20th century, Tulsa’s Greenwood District had hotels, cafés, newspapers, nightclubs, clothing stores, movie theaters, doctors’ and lawyers’ offices, grocery stores, beauty salons, and more. In 1921, as many as three hundred people lost their lives in Tulsa during the worst racial violence in American history. Property damage ran into the millions of dollars, and the Greenwood District lay in ruins. 

“The Greenwood District, a thriving and prosperous Black community, tragically faced destruction during what was termed the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921,” Harris said. “Despite those devastating events, there were several prominent success stories from Black Wall Street that demonstrate—through resilience and entrepreneurship—that significant contributions to the community were made and stories like that should be shared.”

Dr. Ken L. Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League (Courtesy of Dr. Ken Harris)
Dr. Ken L. Harris, president and CEO of the National Business League (Courtesy of Dr. Ken Harris)

Despite setbacks and tragedy, Black businesses continued to grow and flourish. The National Negro Business League was founded in 1900 by Booker T. Washington (name changed in 1966 to the National Business League) and by 1915 had over 600 chapters. In Tulsa itself, African Americans rebuilt the Greenwood District, which by 1942 boasted 242 Black-owned and operated business establishments.

“We have to continue to tell those stories because it is a success story as much as it is as a tragedy,” Busby said.

Today, the Black business community is vibrant and evolving to face new challenges. Perhaps the number one challenge is matching successful businesses with the capital they need to succeed and grow, Harris says.

“Developing supportive ecosystems is crucial, especially in the current and future landscape for Black business owners,” Harris said. “But number one on everybody’s list is access to capital, one of the most significant challenges for Black entrepreneurs.”

Busby notes that creating a process to officially certify Black businesses has led to support and interest outside the Black business community.

“U.S. Black Chambers has created our own Black business certification process,” Busby said. “During COVID, we saw that people, both Black and White, when they were given the opportunity to support Black-owned businesses did just that. … Being able to support Black owned-businesses is a positive thing for the country, not just Black businesses.”

Harris adds that success cannot be achieved alone but that a robust ecosystem has to be in place to support new entrepreneurs and help grow existing businesses.  

“Black business owners truly believe in community and collaboration, and we have to foster that sense of community,” Harris said. “By developing holistic ecosystems, we can create a more inclusive, equitable, and supportive environment that enables businesses to thrive and contribute to the economic empowerment of the Black community. That not only drives economic growth and innovation, but it also promotes socioeconomic equity and empowerment.”

More resources: 

About the authors

Thaddeus Swanek

Thaddeus Swanek

Thaddeus is a senior writer and editor with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's strategic communications team.

Read more