The National Black Chamber of Commerce was incorporated in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 1993. Kay and I did this together and by ourselves. Such an organization was a long time coming.
Booker T. Washington had such a vision at the beginning of the 20th Century. He called it the National Negro Business League. It had up to 30 chapters throughout the United States. It was challenged by rival groups that were started by liberal White New Englanders.
Two main groups of these rivals were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. When Washington abruptly died, these two groups carried on and still exist today.
Our true history
The intent of this article is to clear the air on how the NBCC was started and the early challenges that jumped in our way as we grew to be the largest Black business association in the world.
Kay was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. She and her siblings were second-generation Hoosiers. Her grandfather was born in Tennessee and served in the military as one of the last Buffalo Soldiers. Her father was a “chip off the old block,” joined the military during World War II, and became one of the original four Tuskegee Airmen. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
The DeBows were slaves to the Huguenots, immigrants from France who sought freedom in the New World and specialized in farming in the South, in this in rural Tennessee. Do you remember “Chicken George” in the classic “Roots”? Well, when Chicken George’s son established a lumber company in Hibbing, Tenn., he bought his lumber from a DeBow – one of Kay’s forefathers).
Kay’s mother was the beautiful Aurelia Jane Priscilla Stuart who died last year at the age of 91. She was one of nine children born to William Weir and Mae Lewellen Stuart. All the children were formally educated.
Dr. Stuart was a pioneer. He became the first Black dentist in the state of Indiana. That happened thanks to his “sponsor,” the honorable John Philip Sousa. Is it possible that Mr. Sousa was perhaps his father? Sousa raised him in Indianapolis and they both came from the same area of Alabama.
During Kay’s childhood, the Stuarts were entrepreneurs and quite educated. Stuarts Mortuary and Stuarts Moving are still prosperous today. They lived in upper-class neighborhoods, participated in Jack ‘N Jill, and were active in the civil rights era (they hosted Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he came to town).
Harry’s family a contrast
James Alford was a slave owner and farmer from Noonan, Georgia who moved and resettled in Alabama with his slaves. After a short stint there, he took his family and slaves to Bossier Parrish, Louisiana. One of his slaves was Cicero Alford, the great-grandfather of Harry. Harry’s other three great-grandfathers (Bill Brown, Thomas Watkins and John Salter) were also born slaves and freed in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.
Bill Brown was a legend. He was a “breeder.” His mother arrived from Africa to the slave market of Savannah, Georgia. He was a tall, muscular man and was used to impregnate female slaves – just like a rancher does with his cattle. It is rumored that he fathered at least 100 children in four states before the end of the Civil War.
Thomas Watkins owned 255 acres which were lost to the family when he suddenly “disappeared” in 1875. John Salter was a Presbyterian minister in Webster Parrish, Louisiana and looks “quite White” from his picture.
Harry’s parents, Harry Sr. and Christine Alford, would leave Louisiana for the lure of California during World War II. The state was booming with the war industry and many of their siblings would follow. Veterans were guaranteed jobs at the many military facilities in the sunny state and that is how most Blacks were lured to it. And unlike Indianapolis and Louisiana, there was no rigid Jim Crow-style discrimination.
Harry’s parents had no high school to go to when they were being raised in rural Louisiana. The nearest Black high school was 40 miles away in Shreveport. In fact, the school year was only three months in the winter when there were no crops to attend to. Thus, their education was up to the 8th grade. They were like their peers and became young adults at 16; marriage would come soon. That was better than Harry’s grandparents, who were sharecroppers.
Harry and Kay – two children growing up. One on the West Coast and the other in the Midwest. No one could predict that one day their paths would cross. The prospect of the beginning of the National Black Chamber of Commerce was far, far away.