National Negro Business League

Black educator Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), founder and, from 1881 until his death in 1915, first principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, also founded the National Negro Business League, which for many years was housed at Tuskegee. Washington believed that solutions to the problem of racial discrimination were primarily economic, and that bringing African Americans into the middle class was the key. In 1900, he established the League "to promote the commercial and financial development of the Negro," and headed it until his death. (DIRECTORY NOTE Booker T. Washington Papers)

Dr. Washington's last annual address to the League emphasized the economic purpose behind its founding: "At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, even at the bottom of religion itself there must be for our race, as for all races an economic foundation, economic prosperity, economic independence." This practical economic emphasis distinguished Washington from another outstanding African-American leader of the period, W.E.B. Du Bois.

The League promoted the commercial endeavors and economic advancement of blacks mainly, but not solely in the South, via a network of state and local negro business leagues, and affiliated professional and trade organizations. Membership in the League was open to "any member of the race in good standing in his or her community," whether the person was in business, professional or private life. Meetings provided a forum in which African-American small businessmen shared stories of their struggles and successes.

Affiliated professional organizations included the National Negro Bankers Association, the National Negro Press Association, the National Association of Negro Funeral Directors, the National Negro Bar Association, the National Association of Negro Insurance Men, the National Negro Retail Merchants' Association, the National Association of Negro Real Estate Dealers, and the National Negro Finance Corporation.

During the years that constitute the focus of the Coolidge-Consumer Collection, Robert Russa Moton was principal of Tuskegee Institute and president of the National Negro Business League. (DIRECTORY NOTE Robert R. Moton Papers) Albon L. Holsey, in addition to serving as secretary to Dr. Moton as the principal of Tuskegee, was executive secretary of the National Negro Business League. Other key players in 1922-23, the years for which the Booker T. Washington Papers contain considerable League correspondence, were John L. Webb, treasurer (succeeding Charles H. Anderson), and C.C. Spaulding, a noted insurance man with the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Durham, North Carolina.

A printed press release in the League folder National Negro Business League Printed Matter for 1915-1922 . . . suggests that beginning at least circa 1915, the League organized the National Negro Business Service to "help . . the Negro business men of the country solve their merchandising and advertising problems," promoted advertising in Negro newspapers and magazines, and "influenced . . . national advertisers to use Negro publications in reaching this importantly valuable group of people with its tremendous purchasing power." Emmett J. Scott was President of the Business Service; its secretary was the same Albon L. Holsey who in 1922 became secretary of the League.

C.C. Spaulding, whose success in the insurance business made him something of a legend, also served as first vice president of one of the League's affiliated professional organizations, the National Negro Finance Corporation, situated in Durham. (Dr. Moton was the Finance Corporation's president.) Spaulding had earlier chaired the League's Committee on Business Promotion. By September 1922 he was Chairman of the Executive Committee.

The African-American journals that form a part of the Coolidge-Consumerism collection carried uniformly appreciative reviews of the League's annual meetings, usually composed by the League's executive secretary, Albon Holsey. That picture of the organization is valuably supplemented by the overview of the 1924 annual meeting in Chicago contained in "Something New Under the Sun" by Gustavus Adolphus Steward, in the January 1925 issue of Opportunity, which includes rare criticism of the League, specifying the causes of complaint and the improvements many felt were needed.

The National Negro Business League can be understood as a manifestation of the dual, separate system of social and business life which structured the experience of most black and white people in the nation. The network of the National Negro Business League, radiating out to state and local leagues, was akin to and in many places operated parallel to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce network that united and gave a voice and an identity to white businesses across the country. A very few Southern towns actually had a black Chamber of Commerce, but most did not boast such a black service organization.

Nevertheless, a few items in the National Negro Business League files show that local chapters of the (white) Chamber of Commerce sometimes interacted with the Negro Business League, offering their city as the site of League conventions, welcoming League members to the city once it had been selected as the convention site, providing the League with the names of black businessmen in the area, and occasionally suggesting cooperation, even association, of an ongoing nature.

Despite its existence as something of a parallel but separate black network to the white Chamber of Commerce network, the League had substantial connections, direct and indirect, with the world of white business. Booker T. Washington enjoyed easy and cordial contacts with the white economic elite, among whom were businessmen John Wanamaker and Andrew Carnegie. Julius Rosenwald, head of the Sears, Roebuck and Company mail order and chain store dynasty, was a personal friend of Washington and sat on the Tuskegee Institute Board of Trustees. (DETAIL NOTE Sears) A folder of Moton Correspondence with the Dunbar National Bank of New York City 1928-29, preserved in the papers of Robert R. Moton, shows that early in 1929, the president of the National Negro Business League was invited to serve on the Board of Directors of a bank in Harlem established, in 1928, with low-interest loans from the Rockefeller family.

Annual meetings of the National Negro Business League included representatives of both the black and white races. One year, in Booker T. Washington's time, the Philadelphia department store magnate John Wanamaker was a speaker. The League also invited Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to address the 1924 convention in Chicago; although Hoover does not seem to have accepted, an article by Albon L. Holsey in the October 1926 issue of Opportunity indicates that a letter he wrote to Dr. Moton offering suggestions about the League's projected plan of work was read aloud at the 1926 convention in Cleveland.

The League also linked up with the Association of National Advertisers and, as correspondence from the National Negro Business League files of the Booker T. Washington Papers shows, such other established promoters of mainstream business development as the prestigious Associated Advertising Clubs of the World. (Advertising Clubs Manager Carl Hunt is the contact person whose correspondence appears in the file.) The goal was to publicize Negro business both to African Americans and to American society in general. Readers interested in reviewing the correspondence should consult National Negro Business League Correspondence, 1922 (A-B), National Negro Business League Correspondence, 1922 (C-D), and National Negro Business League Correspondence, 1922 (E-H).

Overall, the League materials in the Manuscript, monograph and serials sections of the Coolidge-Consumerism collection suggest that African-American small businessmen enjoyed some measure of initiative and success in the 1920s economy. (INTRO NOTE African Americans) The League is still in existence today, in downtown Washington, D.C., under the name of the National Business League. One particularly long-lived League legacy has been National Negro Health Week, which began in 1916 as a collaborative effort involving the League, the Annual Tuskegee Negro Conference, the U.S. Public Health Service, and various health and civic organizations. Relatively little has been published about the history of the National Negro Business League.


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