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The Growth of African American Business in Durham

W.E.B. Du Bois was a Harvard-educated African American activist, historian, and sociologist who explored and wrote about many areas of African American life in the first half of the 20th century. Documenting the American South celebrates Black History Month with a focus on Du Bois's study of the commercial progress of black-owned businesses in Durham, North Carolina.

Du Bois's essay "The Upbuilding of Black Durham" was published nine years after The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois's sociological and autobiographical treatise that introduced the concept of "double-consciousness" and argued that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line" (p. 5, p. 1). In his essay, Du Bois sounds a hopeful note, praising a North Carolina town in which a flourishing black middle class had developed robust manufacturing and service sectors without white interference. Based on his first-hand observations, Du Bois describes a bevy of black-owned businesses including grocery stores, barber shops, drug stores, a bank, "a shoe store, a haberdashery, and an undertaking establishment," as well as factories that produced "mattresses, hosiery, brick, iron articles, and dressed lumber" (pp. 334-335). He praises the industry and thrift of Durham's African American residents, noting that they own "a half million dollars' worth of property," though their "pretty and well-equipped homes" show "no evidence of luxury" (p. 335, p. 336).

Perhaps the most notable business Du Bois describes in his essay is the North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association, later renamed the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company. Founded by C. C. Spaulding, whom Du Bois describes as "a sharp-eyed brown man of thirty," the insurance company quickly gained a strong reputation in the financial industry, and after reviewing its operations, South Carolina's Insurance Commissioner reportedly concluded that the business would "mean a great deal to industrial insurance in North and South Carolina, and especially a great benefit to the Negro race" (p. 335).

In addition to the hard work and prudent guidance of black business owners and managers, Du Bois credits a non-threatening white population for enabling the growth of a prosperous black community in its midst. "I consider the greatest factor in Durham's development," he writes, "the disposition of the mass of ordinary white citizens of Durham to say: 'Hands off -- give them a chance -- don't interfere'" (p. 336). Du Bois attributes this benevolent stance in part to the presence of Trinity College (now Duke University), arguing that the "influence of a Southern institution of learning of high ideals; with a president and professors who have dared to speak out for justice toward black men . . . has made white Durham willing to see black Durham rise without organizing mobs or secret societies" (p. 338).

Du Bois would not be the first or the last scholar to find Durham's black businesses notable. Toni Morrison later explained that she chose to open her 1977 novel Song of Solomon with a "North Carolina Mutual Life insurance agent" because "the insurance company is . . . a well-known black-owned company dependent upon black clients" (p. 3, p. xiii). Writing in 1912, Du Bois was pleased to note that "to-day there is a singular group in Durham where a black man may get up in the morning from a mattress made by black men, in a house which a black man built out of lumber which black men cut and planed; he may put on a suit which he bought at a colored haberdashery and socks knit at a colored mill; he may cook victuals from a colored grocery on a stove which black men fashioned; he may earn his living working for colored men, be sick in a colored hospital, and buried from a colored church; and the Negro insurance society will pay his widow enough to keep his children in a colored school. This is surely progress" (p. 338).

Works Consulted: Du Bois, W. E. B., The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin Books, 1996); Gibson, Donald B., Introduction, The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. Du Bois, New York: Penguin Books, 1996; Morrison, Toni, Song of Solomon, New York: Random House, 2004; North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, <http://www.ncmutuallife.com/>, accessed 4 Dec. 2009.

Patrick E. Horn