Beyond the Rhetoric
By Harry C. Alford
It can be quite comical at times when you see public relations splashes about perceived successful entrepreneurs. Ninety per cent of these so-called tycoons are fakes. The fact is, most successful Black businesses are rather “stealth.” Their modesty comes from many examples of attacks, conspiracies and mountains of adversity put before them and others, simply because they are Black.
Most successful Black entrepreneurs that I know would never publish themselves in the so called Black Enterprise Top 100 Black Businesses. To many it is perceived as a “target list” for the IRS, large competitors, and others with bad intentions. Allow me to discuss a few of the horror stories that successful Black entrepreneurs have experienced.
Lannie H. Smith started L.H. Smith Oil Co. and built up a big customer base of Indiana corporations and government entities. He supplied them with fuel oil. His biggest contract was with Ft. Knox, in Kentucky, the home of the U.S. Army tank school. Traditionally, you had to deliver the goods on time or face a fine for lateness. In this case, if any of his trucks were late his company would be assessed a fine of $1,000 per hour or part thereof.
His enemies knew this so when each truck left Indianapolis for Ft. Knox it would be stopped by an Indiana state trooper and detained for hours. After the harassment, the trooper would release the truck and as soon as it crossed the Ohio River Bridge a Kentucky state trooper was waiting to do the same. This harassment was taking all the profit out of the deliveries and building bad relations with an important customer. It’s hard to fight something that is being sanctioned by the highest office in the state (Governor and State Police).
Robert Batteast and his son built a thriving construction company in South Bend, IN. They did most of their business in Chicago and with the federal government (SBA 8a program) as the state of Indiana had them blocked from any good work.
Through the request of Indiana white contractors, the Army Corps of Engineers decided to break this company. Batteast was assigned the building of an Army barracks at Ft. Benning, GA. It was considered an “emergency” job which caused all the approvals and notices to proceed, to be verbal. It was a setup.
As Batteast Construction was finishing the barracks, the Corps claimed the foundation was not to specification and the whole project should be demolished and restarted and there would be no payment. Batteast, of course, formally challenged that and a third-party architect was to come in and offer a professional opinion. Before the architect arrived at the scene, the Corps of Engineers took a giant D7 tractor and leveled the $3 million structure.
Batteast had to sue to recover his money and it took nine years to win his case. He was awarded triple damages, $9 million, but the federal government told him to accept only the principal $3 million or they would appeal the whole thing for the next 20 – 30 years. He had no choice. His company barely survived that nine-year period of litigation.
Sometimes these horror stories are worse than business disruption. Mayors Harold Washington, Coleman Young and Carl Stokes of Chi- cago, Detroit and Cleveland respectively, decided to recognize Black construction talent and share it with each other. Suddenly Black construction management companies during the 1980s started to grow in these cities.
The fastest rising star was Madison Construction Management. This flamboyant architect and engineering magnate was rolling in Cleveland and especially in Chicago. When he was awarded the prestigious expansion of the Detroit Metro Airport through the blessing of Mayor Young, the authorities decided to send a message. Within two weeks of winning the huge Detroit gig, Mr. Madison was assassinated in his car (two bullets to the back of his head).
The next two most successful construction management firms in Chicago met a similar fate within the next five months. One entrepreneur died when his private plane fell out of the sky. The other entrepreneur fell “asleep” in his garage with the car still running. The Black business community was terrified. In fact, no homegrown successful construction management firms in Chicago and Detroit have risen since.
I know hundreds of such stories. One day I will have to chronicle it in a book. It is just a shame to see hard work and success attacked simply because of the color of one’s skin. To see a catfish farmer have his ponds poisoned with toxic mercury; companies getting their valuable equipment stolen; unwarranted union strikes; merciless IRS audits and harassments; false fraud charges and it goes on and on.
For every successful Black business that hasn’t been “hit” there are five more that have. STILL WE RISE!
Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: [email protected].