A noble history

Anthony W. Neal | 2/14/2012, 5:23 p.m.
At turn of 20th century, Boston’s black businesses sought economic independenceAnthony W. Neal ...

At turn of 20th century, Boston’s black businesses sought economic independence

About 200 African American-owned businesses existed in the city of Boston at the beginning of the 20th century.

Before providing a brief history of the most prominent of those proprietorships, a sketch of the city’s black demographics at that time is instructive. According to U.S. Census figures, from 1890 to 1920 Boston’s black population doubled, growing from 8,125 to 16,350. Half of the city’s African American residents were southern migrants.

This sudden influx of black people from the South aroused antipathy among white Bostonians. By 1895, laws rendered segregated public schools and racial discrimination in public places of accommodation illegal in Boston; laws prohibiting racial discrimination in employment, however, were nonexistent.

Although the vast majority of black Bostonians at the turn of the century were self-respecting, hard-working men and women, most found their employment options limited by race prejudice and a lack of education.

Consequently, about 70 percent of the city’s black residents were relegated to menial and common labor occupations such as servants, porters, laundresses, helpers in stores and unskilled laborers.

Approximately 18 percent of the city’s black population fell within the middle class, comprised mainly of waiters, Pullman porters, and artisans at the low end of the class, and business proprietors and professionals at the high end.

Boston’s black upper class, typically distinguished by superior education, was made up of attorneys, physicians, business proprietors, and literary and musical people. Notwithstanding the social and economic obstacles they had encountered, their accomplishments demonstrated that financial success was attainable.

By 1910, forty percent of the city’s black population, roughly 5,000 blacks, lived within the one and one quarter mile by one mile area by Northampton, Ruggles, Washington and Tremont Streets. By 1920, 7,319 African Americans, or about half of Boston’s black population, inhabited the South End/Lower Roxbury district.

Not only did most of the city’s black middle class reside in this community, but many of its African American business owners and professionals were its mainstay. Indeed, a significant number of Boston’s black-owned businesses were concentrated within the 700-900 block area of Tremont St. Black Bostonians of the period understood that their economic advancement, by necessity, depended chiefly upon the support of their own community — solely upon their own efforts and the cultivation of their own resources.

In 1900, 7.8 percent of Boston’s black men and 5.9 percent of its black women were professionals or engaged in business proprietorships — primarily personal service concerns requiring only small amounts of startup capital. While the vast majority of black business owners fell into the categories of retail merchants, restaurant owners and caterers, and boarding and lodging house keepers, others held a wide variety of occupations, ranging from pharmacists to newspaper publishers.

Grocery and Provision Stores

Jesse Goode headed the retail and wholesale grocery firm of Goode, Dunson and Henry — the largest black-owned grocery store in Boston at the time. Situated on Shawmut Avenue, through its wholesale department the store supplied many of the smaller black-owned grocery stores in the city. The firm’s holdings were valued at $73,000.