Founded by Booker T Washington on August 23rd, 1900, the National Negro Business League was a major driver of African American economic empowerment during the 1920’s in America.
Its first meeting, held in Boston, brought together an unprecedented number of African Americans representing over thirty states. In later years organisers changed its name to the National Business League.
In the American deep south of the late 1800s, most blacks were employed in agriculture, usually as sharecroppers or tenant farmers who rented their small plots from white land owners, paying their fees as a percentage of crops grown. These practices were intended to minimise the amount of cash handled - and more importantly acquired - by southern blacks of that period.
Since free cash flow and the standard of living for southern African Americans was quite low, their purchasing power was almost non-existent. As a result, the needs of this community were largely ignored by white owned businesses of that time.
Born a slave in 1856 and having experienced first hand the Emancipation Proclamation (he wrote the book Up From Slavery in 1906), Washington had a strong sense of self reliance. He therefore believed that southern African Americans had a greater capacity for economic self advancement than their Northern cousins, most of whom earned adequate wages in factories.
Early activities of The League included seminars to "help . . . the Negro business men of the country solve their merchandising and advertising problems", “to promote advertising in Negro newspapers and magazines”, and to "influence . . . national advertisers to use Negro publications in reaching this importantly valuable group of people with its tremendous purchasing power".
A key goal of The League during its early years was networking, and the improvement of contacts between what were then called the “black and white business worlds”. Central to this goal, The League maintained directories for all major US cities, incorporating African American contacts in such diverse business as auto sales, confectioners, electricians, embalmers, hotels, markets, black co-operative groceries, restaurants, shoemakers, theatre as well as business building services such as advertising, booklets and circulars.
Annual meetings were held every year from the Leagues inception in 1920, and local chapters from across the nation would nominate several representatives to attend these conferences.
By 1922 the league had been successful enough in its activities to attract the attention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, who proposed formal links between the two organisations. The two organisations worked together over the next few years to promote knowledge of the leagues existence more widely in the white business world.
In 1923 league president Robert Morton, then president the Tuskegee Institute proposed a funding arm for the organisation, finally establishing it in 1924 as the National Negro Finance Corporation. Not only did it provide cash to fund the leagues business development activities but - perhaps most importantly - it also maintained scholarship programs to assist African Americans with the costs of attending college.
An early and frequent contributor to the fund was Julius Rosenwal, founder of Sears department-store. Rosenwal had long been a supporter of education for African Americans, having launched in 1917 the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which established rural schools for blacks in addition to constructing YMCA and YWCA buildings in cities with large black populations.
Beginning in the mid 1920’s The League became concerned about lynchings in America, which appeared to have sharply increased with the visibility and successfulness of African American businesses. Although the league fully backed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill – which would have made lynching a federal crime – it was defeated in Congress in 1933.
With the widespread emergence of a black middle classin later years, The League was perceived to have accomplished its mission as a vehicle to promote the establishment and expansion of African American business.
The attention of the public now turned to the far more pressing issue of the integration of African Americans into everyday life. The Leagues activities continued to decline until 1968, when it was formally disbanded.