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WHAT WAS THE FIRST INSURANCE COMPANY OWNED BY AFRICAN AMERICANS?
The Afro American Insurance Company, the first known insurance firm to be owned and managed by African Americans, was established in Philadelphia in 1810 by three businessmen, James Porter, William Coleman, and Joseph Randolph. The original purpose of the company, which stayed in business for thirty years, was to provide African Americans with a proper burial.
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WHO WAS THE COUNTRY'S FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN MILLIONAIRE?
In 1841, William Liedesdorff arrived in San Francisco Bay on his schooner Julia Ann. Born in the Virgin Islands around 1810, the son of an African American woman and a Danish sugar planter, Liedesdorff left home to learn the maritime trade, working on ships out of New Orleans. Already a wealthy man when he came to San Francisco, he bought land, built a home, and opened a store. He then proceeded to make a major impact on the city.
As a member of the city council, Liedesdorff was instrumental in setting up the first public school and organizing the first official horse race. He launched the first steamboat on San Francisco Bay and later opened the first hotel. He eventually owned an extensive amount of land in the city as well as a huge estate near Sutter's Mill, in gold-rush country. Liedesdorff died at the age of thirty-eight from what was then called "brain fever." A short street in downtown San Francisco still bears his name.
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WHO FOUNDED THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN LABOR UNION?
Born in Baltimore in 1835, Isaac Myers was apprenticed at the age of sixteen as a ship caulker, an important job in the days of wooden-hulled ships. He was very successful, becoming supervisor of one of the largest shipyards in Baltimore. After the Civil War, white laborers in the city mounted an effort to eliminate all African American skilled workers. In response, Myers organized the ship caulkers and longshoremen who were being forced out of their jobs, raised money from the community, and established a black-owned cooperative shipyard.
The shipyard, the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company, employed hundreds of African Americans, won a number of government contracts, and provided the impetus for the establishment of the Colored Caulkers' Trade Union Society of Baltimore. Myers then organized the first national African American labor union in United States history—the Colored National Labor Union—and became its first president. Later, Myers held several government positions and was a key member of Baltimore's Republican Party until his death in 1891.
WHO FOUNDED THE FIRST CHARTERED AFRICAN AMERICAN BANK?
William Washington Browne, born a slave in Georgia in 1849, was still a child when he was sold to an owner in Tennessee. During the Civil War, Browne ran away with the Union Army and became an officer's servant. At fifteen, he joined the army, serving for two years. He then attended school in Wisconsin, returning to the South to become a schoolteacher.
A fervent leader in the temperance movement and an ordained Methodist minister, Browne became the head of an organization for African Americans called the Grand Fountain of the United Order of True Reformers, based in Richmond, Virginia. Browne's organization grew to include an insurance company, a hotel, an office building, a concert hall, and the True Reformers Savings Bank, which, when it opened in 1889, became the first African American bank in the United States to receive a charter. In 2001, the city of Richmond acquired the William Washington Browne House, which had served as the site of the bank, and joined with the National Park Service to restore this National Historic Landmark.
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WHO WAS THE FIRST WOMAN IN AMERICA TO BECOME A BANK PRESIDENT?
Maggie Lena Walker was born in 1867 in Richmond, Virginia, where her parents worked in the mansion of a noted abolitionist, Elizabeth Van Lew, who believed in providing her servants with a good education. When Maggie's father found a job as a headwaiter in a hotel, the family moved into its own home. But after he was killed in a robbery, her mother had to support the family as a laundress. A bright student, Walker finished her education and became a teacher. She later took a job with the Independent Order of St. Luke Society, an African American organization that assisted sick and elderly members and provided burial services.
As executive secretary of the Society, Walker expanded it into an insurance company, and in 1903 she founded the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, becoming its president and the first woman bank president in the United States. Her bank provided small cardboard boxes to children in which they could save their pennies; when they had saved a dollar, they could open a savings account. Walker served as president until the bank merged with two others to form the Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, for which she served as chairman of the board.
Walker started a department store in the African American neighbor hood of Richmond and worked for women's suffrage. The house in Richmond where she died in 1934 was named a National Historic Site. During Women's History Month, in March 2001, Virginia Congressman Robert C. "Bobby" Scott honored this remarkable woman in a speech before the House of Representatives, in which he described her accomplishments.
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WHAT WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN–OWNED CAR COMPANY?
The Patterson family of Greenfield, Ohio, began manufacturing the Patterson-Greenfield line of cars, trucks, and buses in 1915. The patriarch of the family was Charles Richard Patterson, who had escaped from slavery in West Virginia and settled in Ohio, where he ran a blacksmith business. It was there that he founded the Charles R. Patterson Carriage Company, which started making horse-drawn vehicles in the 1860s. After Patterson died, his son, Frederick, took over and decided to manufacture automobiles. The first car sold for $850. The company went out of business in the 1930s, when it could no longer compete with large car manufacturers.
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WHAT WAS THE FIRST RECORD COMPANY OWNED BY AN AFRICAN AMERICAN?
In 1921 Harry Pace formed the Pace Phonographic Corporation, which issued records on the Black Swan label. It was the first record company owned and operated by an African American. The label was named for the renowned singer Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was called "the Black Swan." Earlier, in 1908, Pace had organized a music publishing company in Memphis, Tennessee, with the blues composer W. C. Handy. The Pace and Handy Music Company moved to New York in 1918, but the partnership dissolved three years later when Pace formed his record business.
For his record company, Pace brought in Fletcher Henderson as recording manager and William Grant Still as arranger. His first releases featured performances of light classical music, blues, spirituals, and instrumental solos. Black Swan's first hit was a recording of "Down Home Blues" and "Oh, Daddy," sung by Ethel Waters. Although Pace recorded many outstanding artists, he was unable to withstand the competition from white-owned companies, and was forced to declare bankruptcy in December 1923. A few months later he sold the Black Swan label to Paramount Records.
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WHO ORGANIZED AND SERVED AS THE FIRST PRESIDENT OF THE FIRST MAJOR AFRICAN AMERICAN TRADE UNION?
One of the country's leading spokesmen for African American workers, A. Philip Randolph was born in Florida in 1889. After moving to New York City at the age of twenty, he worked as a waiter and an elevator operator, and in both jobs he tried to organize his fellow workers to protest deplorable conditions.
In 1925 Randolph decided to organize the poorly paid men and women who worked on railroad sleeping cars. He founded the all-black International Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and served as its first president, a position he held for forty-three years. In addition, he was the first African American to serve as international vice-president of the AFL-CIO, a major labor organization formed in 1955.
Randolph also made history by proposing a major march on Washington to take place on July 1, 1941. It was to be a march of African Americans from all over the country to protest discrimination against black workers in the defense industry. President Franklin Roosevelt tried to dissuade him, but Randolph said the march would take place unless the president issued an order banning discrimination in defense plants. Roosevelt finally gave in and issued the executive order on June 25.
In 1947, Randolph began putting pressure on President Harry Truman, who had created a peacetime draft but had not included a provision to desegregate the armed forces. Finally, the next year, Truman issued an order that did away with discrimination in the military.
Randolph was also the director of the famous 1963 March on Washington, which called for civil rights for African Americans and made Martin Luther King Jr. a national figure. The chief organizer of the march was Bayard Rustin, whose selection caused some opposition because he was known to be a conscientious objector, a socialist, and a homosexual. After Randolph's death in 1979, the crowd of prominent people who attended his funeral was led by President Jimmy Carter.
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WHO WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMAN TO START A MODELING AGENCY?
Ophelia DeVore-Mitchell, one of the first African American models in the United States, was born in Edgefield, South Carolina, in 1922. She moved with her family to New York City in the 1930s, enrolling in the Vogue School of Modeling when she was seventeen. She modeled for several years before deciding to help other African American women overcome stereotypes and succeed in the field.
In 1946 she opened the Grace Del Marco Model Agency, and two years later she started the Ophelia DeVore School of Self-Development and Modeling. But she didn't stop there. She initiated a fashion column for the Pittsburgh Courier, created a line of cosmetics, and, in 1959, began publishing a weekly African American newspaper in Georgia, the Columbus Times. During her long career, DeVore-Mitchell served on boards and committees under four presidents, including the president's advisory committee on the arts for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
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WHO WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN CAPTAIN OF A SCHEDULED AIRLINE?
August Harvey Martin was born in Los Angeles, California, in 1919. His mother, a schoolteacher, taught him at home until he was thirteen, when the family moved to New York City. There he graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School before heading back west to attend San Mateo Junior College and the University of California. While in junior college, he washed and fueled airplanes at the Oakland Flying Service to earn money for flying lessons. He soloed in 1940 and continued his flight training at the university.
Martin returned to New York, where he worked as a civilian flight inspector for a year and then joined the Army Air Corps, training in Tuskegee, Alabama. Before he could be sent overseas, World War II ended, and Martin left the air force in 1946. He took an aircraft maintenance job and flew part-time for various airlines. He finally gained the success he had worked for when, in 1955, he was hired by Seaboard World Airlines as the first African American captain of a scheduled airline in the United States.
Martin often used his vacations to fly food and other necessities to struggling African nations. On a mercy flight to Biafra, in 1968, he was killed while trying to land on a highway in a rainstorm. The August Martin High School in Jamaica, New York, named in his honor, is a magnet school for the study of aviation.
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WHO WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN PILOT TO FLY FOR A COMMERCIAL AIRLINE?
When Captain Dave Harris was honored by the Organization of Black Airline Pilots in August 2008, he was recognized for his thirty-year career as a pilot for American Airlines—the first African American pilot to fly for a commercial airline. Born in 1934 in Columbus, Ohio, Davis attended a private school and then enrolled in Ohio State University with the goal of becoming a science or physical education teacher. But his experience with the university's Air Force ROTC program led to a change of plans, and after graduation he became an air force pilot, flying planes that were some of the largest in the world at the time.
After more than six years in the air force, Harris decided to seek a position as a commercial pilot. But, unlike his white colleagues, he found that several airlines refused to even hand him an application form. Finally, American Airlines gave him a chance. The chief pilot who interviewed Harris said he wasn't concerned with his color, only his skill at piloting a plane. Harris began training with the airline in December 1964, but his experience was often unpleasant; some of the white pilots refused to speak to him, or would use derogatory language. "It was lonesome for the most part," he told the South Florida Times, "because there were no others and it wasn't until six months after I was hired that they got their second black pilot."
Once the training period was over, though, Harris went on to have what he called the "perfect career." When he retired as a captain in November 1994, he was flying the wide-body MD-11, the country's largest airplane at the time. In 2008, when he was honored for his accomplishments, American Airlines vice president of flight, Captain Mark Hetterman, said: "Captain Harris is a role model among African Americans who have since followed in his footsteps to work in the commercial airline industry."
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WHAT WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN–OWNED COMPANY TO BE PUBLICLY OWNED AND TRADED ON THE STOCK MARKET?
Those who grew up in the 1950s and '60s can remember the sound of a child's voice on the radio making this plaintive demand: "More Parks Sausages, Mom, please." The Parks Sausage Company, which made this famous product, was founded in 1951 in Baltimore by Henry G. Parks Jr., a marketing graduate of Ohio State University, who had a varied background. Parks's work experience had included stints as a salesman for a beer maker, an owner of a drugstore, and a manufacturer of cinder blocks.
Parks was general manager of his new sausage company, where the sausage was made in the morning and sold in the afternoon. The sausage maker was also the production manager and the entire sales force. One of the two production workers doubled as clerk and demonstrated the sausages in supermarkets on weekends.
The Parks Sausage Company expanded rapidly, and in 1952 Parks hired a new general manager, Raymond V. Haysbert. New products and sales areas were added, and in 1969 Parks Sausage became the first black-owned company to be publicly owned and traded on the stock market. In 1990 the company moved into a new 113,500-square-foot headquarters and meat-processing facility. But the business started going downhill, and by 1996, facing bankruptcy, the company was bought by former football stars Franco Harris, of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Lydell Mitchell, of the Baltimore Colts. The two were unable to pull the company out of debt, and in 1999 they sold the facility to the Philadelphia-based meat processor Dietz & Watson, which preserved the Parks Sausage name.
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WHO WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN TRADER ON THE FLOOR OF THE NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE?
On February 12, 1970, for the first time in the one-hundred-and-seventy-eight-year history of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), an African American trader was seen on the exchange's floor. The trader, Joseph L. Searles III, a graduate of Kansas State University and George Washington University Law School, had played football for the New York Giants, and was, at the time, a partner at Neuberger, Loeb and Company.
"It's a personal challenge to me as a black man to become part of the economic mainstream of this country," the New York Times quoted him as saying when he joined the trading group. "Hopefully, my presence will increase the credibility of the financial community, as far as blacks are concerned."
Searles left the exchange nine months later and joined the public finance department at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Company. He later took leadership roles in minority economic development in New York City. He was a board member of the New York Urban League and president of the New York/New Jersey Chapter of the National Football League Players Association.
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WHO WAS THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN DIRECTOR OF GENERAL MOTORS?
Leon Sullivan, born in Charleston, West Virginia, in 1922, was ordained a Baptist minister as a young man. He soon became involved in efforts to improve the economic situation of African Americans, working with A. Philip Randolph in his successful effort in July 1941 to obtain jobs for black workers in the defense industry. Sullivan also served as an aide to New York's Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., in his 1944 Congressional campaign.
Excerpted from African American Firsts by JOAN POTTER. Copyright © 2014 Joan Potter. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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