Monday, September 5, 2016

Black Entrepreneurship and Black Lives Matter

     Two years after Michael Brown's demise, which awoke a generation, the black and white largely middle class millennials who arose to leadership have yet to face and focus on the foremost underlying factor that devalues black lives - poverty.  The ultimate solution to America's racial discord - eradicating impoverishment - was the final agenda of Martin Luther King, who came to recognize that the social equality brought about by ending segregation rang hollow without economic equality.  I thought about this as I learned of the recent passing of Tom Person.

     Tom, the owner and founder of Person's Heating & Cooling symbolized this solution.  He was a burly man, whose physical appearance left no doubt that he had literally built his heating and air conditioner repair business, and his soft-spokenness belied a keen intellect that was the foundation of his entrepreneurship.

     Tom was in many respects representative of the black men entrepreneurs I encountered and worked with when I returned to St. Louis from law school at the beginning of the 80's.  Black entrepreneurship was seen then as the solution, the key to the economic enfranchisement and upliftment of the black community.  Tom and a cadre of other black men constituted a new wave of black leaders, who envisioned black progress being led by black businesspersons, rather than preachers and politicians.     They had become emboldened by national and local laws newly put in place that set aside government contracts and resources for blacks and minorities, and they had the savvy to see the connection between political and activist action and economic advancement.  They realized the independence entrepreneurship afforded, and how their business proceeds could fuel the black political apparatus.  They worked hand in glove with black elected officials, demanding that blacks get a fair slice of the economic pie.

Tom was a core member of the St. Louis Minority Contractors Association, a raucous and rebellious organization composed of hard core men who made up for a lack of formal education with an acute and bodacious knowledge of their particular trade.  In the late 80's, they both protested and successfully sued the City of St. Louis to achieve a minority inclusion law that still stands. 
The black contractors, though, were not alone among the black businesses pushing the envelope for change, seeking an economic revolution.  Three black men - an owner of a beauty supply business, another who owned a railroad car repair business, and one who owned a newspaper - united to form perhaps the most formidable black organization of that era, the Black Leadership Roundtable.  They forced the powers that be to include blacks in the construction of the domed stadium, and they defeated a racist group's attempt to control the school board.  They were not just businessmen, they were modern day freedom fighters, who were as determined to serve their people as make a profit.

There's an old saying that "they don't make 'em like they used to."  And that's what I think about when I juxtapose the millennial movement leaders of today with the generation of black men leaders exemplified by Tom Person.

Eric E. Vickers, Attorney and Community Activist.

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