by Charlene Crowell

(NNPA)—At a time when the source of so much consumer angst is focused on the ill effects of consumer lending, it was both fitting and appropriate for the 2010 theme of Black History Month to be economic empowerment. The theme, as in previous years, was identified by the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, the organization that provides ongoing service to the vision and works that Dr. Carter G. Woodson first began in 1926.


More than just looking back to yesteryear, this annual observance is also a time to gather wisdom and inspiration for today’s considerable challenges.  Just as each generation faces its own dilemmas, the footprint of our forefathers offer valuable lessons that illustrate how as a people we met and overcame what might have been considered insurmountable obstacles.

Two who successfully and notably chartered their way to economic freedom are Madam C. J. Walker and Dr. A.G. Gaston.

Born December 23, 1867 in the throes of Reconstruction, Sarah Breedlove was the first member of her family to be born free. Married at 14 and widowed at 20 with a young daughter in tow, she moved from her home in the Louisiana Delta to join her brothers who were living in St. Louis, Missouri. Finding work as a $1.50 a day laundress, she scrimped to save money for her education.

By 1905, she began working as a sales representative for a hair care manufacturer and entrepreneur who was also a Black woman, Annie Malone. It was while working for Ms. Malone that young Sarah first developed her own hair care formulas and products.

Following her 1906 marriage to Charles Joseph Walker in St. Louis, she founded the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company with hair care products and cosmetics. Although her second marriage ended in divorce in 1910, her business thrived and relocated to a then-new industrial complex in Indianapolis, Ind.

In 1916, when her company’s reported sales reached $250,000, she became the nation’s first Black millionaire in recorded history. By 1917 she owned the largest African-American business in the country. Today, the “Guinness Book of Records” cites Walker as the first female who became a millionaire by her own achievements.

Speaking of her life, Madam Walker once said, “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen. And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations. I have built my own factory on my own ground.”

Another Black economic pioneer, Dr. Arthur George Gaston, lived by the slogan, ‘a portion of all you earn is yours to keep’, and in a lifetime that surpassed 100 years, built a diversified economic base with a personal fortune estimated to be between $30-$40 million, business assets of more than $20 million and an annual payroll of $1.75 million.

In 1957 and in response to the difficulties Blacks faced in obtaining loans from white banks in Alabama, he founded Citizens Federal Savings and Loan, the first Black-owned financial institution since the closing of the Alabama Penny Savings Bank 40 years earlier.

When Birmingham area businesses claimed there were no qualified Blacks for stenography, bookkeeping and secretarial jobs, he founded the Booker T. Washington Business College. And when segregation denied Black travelers hotel rooms, he opened the A. G. Gaston Motel and Restaurant. Other holdings included an insurance company, funeral home, bottling company, radio station, and construction company.

Born in July 4, 1892 in Demopolis, Alabama, like Madam Walker, his innovative approach to economic empowerment was guided by his desire to find a market need and fill it. In 1968, he authored “Green Power: The Successful Way of A G. Gaston.”

Although his formal education only went to the 10th grade, by the time of his death on Jan. 16, 1996 at the age of 103, he was the recipient of honorary degrees from six institutions of higher learning, including one in Liberia, West Africa. He was National Treasurer of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and was an official delegate to the General Conference of the Church in Oxford, England in 1951.

Both of these incredible lives show that despite segregation, Jim Crow, and limited academic educations, their lives became true testaments to the capacity and resiliency of the human spirit.

Yes, the current recession has resulted in disproportionate unemployment, foreclosures, personal bankruptcies, and other consumer debts. But if our forefathers could survive slavery, lynching, bombings and beatings, we too can honor the words of poet Maya Angelou who wrote, “And still I rise”.

This February—celebrate yourself and your heritage.

(Charlene Crowell is the Center for Responsible Lending’s Communications manager for State Policy and Outreach. She can be reached at

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