PBS Documentary BOSS tells story of Black Entrepreneurship

Pictured: Stanley Nelson at the NMAAHC’s Oprah Winfrey Theater

From the days of slavery, African Americans have used their creativity and ingenuity to create financial freedom and economic empowerment in their communities. The new PBS documentary Boss: The Black Experience in Business tells the story of these Black entrepreneurs and business leaders who overcame tremendous odds, racism and discrimination.

“African Americans have a long history in business and they fought through unbelievable odds to be successful,” said award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson during the screening of the film at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. “Hopefully that is the lesson: hat if you want it, you can get it – whether it’s a mom-and-pop store to a corporation.”

The film spans decades of Black entrepreneurs from barbers to current billionaire Robert F. Smith, founder, chairman and CEO of Vista Equity Partners. The two-hour documentary includes the stories of John H. Johnson, founder of Johnson Publishing Company which produced Ebony and Jet magazines; Motown CEO Berry Gordy and business pioneer and philanthropist Reginald F. Lewis.

Historian Shennette Garrett- Scott, an assistant professor of History and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi, was happy to see the stories of Black women entrepreneurs featured in the film including Madame C. J. Walker, whose hair care products business brought her wealth and influence; Cathy Hughes, CEO and founder of Urban One; and Ursula Burns, former CEO of Xerox and the first African-American woman to run a Fortune 500 company.

“I studied Black women in banking. It is a story that we talk about but we don’t know the struggle behind,” says Garrett-Scott, author of Banking on Freedom: Black Women in U.S. Finance Before the New Deal. “These women built communities and helped generations build wealth for all people.”

Boss sheds light on the entrepreneurial spirit of the newly freed after the Civil War. Noting that the former slaves needed a place to keep their hard-earned dollars, Congress created the Freedman’s Bank in 1865. At its height, the Freedman’s Bank had 37 branches in 17 states, 70,000 depositors and more than $57 million in deposits. But the bank was mismanaged and there was rampant corruption. White bankers stole the depositors money. Frederick Douglass was brought on in 1874 to save the bank, but it was too late and the bank closed later that year.

And there’s the story of the destruction of the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Okla., known as “Black Wall Street.” Greenwood was home to Tulsa’s Black middle class, where African-American doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs lived and thrived. In 1921, a young Black man was accused of making an inappropriate gesture to a White girl in an elevator. A White mob gathered and surrounded the Greenwood district, killing between 100-300 Black residents and destroying 35 blocks of businesses including a school, library, a hospital, churches and homes. Thousands were left homeless and millions of dollars lost. The Tulsa Race Riots are considered one of the deadliest race massacres in U.S. history.

Boss was held in NMAAHC’s Oprah Winfrey Theater, named after one of the nation’s most successful African-American entrepreneurs. Nelson noted that theme of resilience runs through the film.

“We are resilient. We have to be resilient. That is what matters,” said Nelson. “There are obstacles but we can’t let that stop us. We must keep pushing.”

Boss airs tonight at 8 p.m. est on PBS.

— Hamil R. Harris

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