Feb 3, 2022
6 financial heroes to honor this Black History Month
It’s Black History Month, and we’re honoring the finance heroes who made their mark on the world of money. From entrepreneurs and investors to lawyers and engineers, these inspiring leaders achieved money goals that empowered positive change in their communities.
This month, let’s start money convos to honor and celebrate the Black leaders who still inspire us today.
Atlanta’s 1st Black millionaire
Alonzo Herndon was emancipated from slavery at the age of seven. He continued working on plantations and farms to help support his family. Along the way, Alonzo learned how to barber and eventually owned one of Atlanta’s top shops, Crystal Palace. He invested his earnings in real estate — with more than 100 properties. Alonzo acquired what is now known as Atlanta Life Insurance Company with a $140 investment. More than a well-known insurance biz, Atlanta Life also supported the Civil Rights Movement with its services — including Martin Luther King Jr.’s life insurance policy.
Maggie Lena Walker
1st woman to charter a bank in the United States
Next on the list is a financial feminist. Maggie Lena Walker founded St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, with the aim to achieve economic independence in the Black community. She was the first woman ever to own a bank in the U.S. 👏 Maggie had a way with numbers — and words. She also created the St. Luke Herald, a monthly newsletter that gave a voice to civil rights activists.
Founded 1st Black-owned business on Wall Street
Ernesta Procope was nicknamed the “First Lady of Wall Street” (imagine that on your resume). She founded EG Bowman Company, a private insurance company. In 1979, they moved from Brooklyn to Manhattan, making it the first Black-owned business to have a Wall Street address. Beyond handling Fortune 500 clients, Ernesta also advocated for insurance equality for low-income families. When big-name companies refused to underwrite policies in one marginalized community, EG Bowman Company sent their execs in limos to make it happen.
Reginald F. Lewis
1st Black American to build a billion-dollar company
Harvard Law School invited Reginald F. Lewis to attend… before he even applied. He also set up Wall Street’s first Black law firm. Reginald’s story really took off when he established his private equity company. His first successful venture made a 90-to-1 return on investment. And by 1992, they had sales of over $1.8 billion. Reginald was ambitious AND generous. His family continues his legacy through the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation.
Robert L. Johnson
Founded the 1st Black-owned company traded on the New York Stock Exchange
Robert L. Johnson is a modern-day trailblazer. His TV journey started in cable, where he noticed an opportunity to reach an overlooked audience: the Black community. So, he founded Black Entertainment Television (BET) with a $15,000 personal loan. In 1991, BET went public, the first Black-owned business to meet this milestone. The Johnsons became the first Black Americans to achieve a net worth of more than a billion dollars (talk about a lofty Savings Goal!).
Robert F. Smith
First Black American to sign the Giving Pledge
Every month, Robert F. Smith's mother sent a check to the United Negro College Fund (no matter their $ situation at the time). His mom taught him that generosity adds up — and he followed her lead. Today, Robert is the founder of a private equity firm with more than $50 billion (!!!) in assets. In 2017, he became the first Black American to join the Giving Pledge, a promise to donate the majority of his net worth. He gave $20 million to the National Museum of African American History and Culture — and he paid off ALL the student loan debt for Morehouse College’s class of 2019 🤯
“We will only grasp the staggering potential of our time if we create onramps that empower ALL people to participate, regardless of background, country of origin, religious practice, gender, or color of skin. I will never forget that my path was paved by my parents, grandparents and generations of African Americans whose names I will never know.” — Robert F. Smith
From the first banks to the first billion-dollar businesses, these Black financial leaders overcame barriers to make history. They balanced bold ambition with a desire to give back, paving the way for future generations. As your family reflects on these industry pioneers, we encourage you to keep learning together. For more ways to honor Black History Month, dive in below.
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