The Evolution of the National Black Chamber of Commerce – Part 1

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Harry C. Alford and Kay DeBow

Beyond the Rhetoric

By Harry C. Alford & Kay DeBow

The National Black Chamber of Commerce was incorporated in Washington, DC on May 23, 1993. Kay and I did this together and by ourselves. Such an organization was a long-time coming. Booker T. Washington had such a vision at the beginning of the 20th Century. He called it the National Negro Business League. It had up to 30 chapters throughout the United States. It was challenged by rival groups that were started by liberal white New Englanders. Two main groups of these rivals were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League. When Washington abruptly died, these two groups carried on and still exist today. The intent of this article is to “clear the air” on how the NBCC was started and the early challenges that jumped in our way as we grew to be the largest Black business association in the world.

Kay was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. She and her siblings were second generation “Hoosiers.” Her roots are clear. Her grandfather was born in Tennessee and served in the military as one of the last Buffalo Soldiers. The picture of him in uniform is quite amazing.  Her father was a “chip off the old block” as he would join the military during World War II and became one of the original four Tuskegee Airmen. He retired as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force. The DeBow’s were slaves to the Huguenots in rural Tennessee. The Huguenots were immigrants from France who sought freedom in the New World and specialized in farming in the South. Do you remember “Chicken George” in the classic “Roots”? Well, when Chicken George’s son established a lumber company in Hibbing, Tennessee he would buy his lumber from a DeBow (one of Kay’s forefathers).

Kay’s mother was the beautiful Aurelia Jane Priscilla Stuart. She died last year at the age of 91. She was one of nine children born to William Weir and Mae Lewellen Stuart. All the children were formally educated. Dr. Stuart was a pioneer. He became the first Black dentist in the state of Indiana. That happened thanks to his “sponsor” the honorable John Philip Sousa. The term sponsor is used lightly. Is it possible that Mr. Sousa was, perhaps, his father? (note: Sousa’s daughter was also named Jane Priscilla). Sousa raised him in Indianapolis and they both came from the same area of Alabama. Getting Weir accepted into the Indiana Dental School was a legal fight. Why did he risk it all for Weir? Somehow, there is a whole lot of European DNA in the Stuarts. One of Kay’s aunts was a natural red head. Another was a natural blonde. Kay’s ancestry is 47 percent European. But I guess we can talk about that in another story.

During Kay’s childhood the Stuarts were entrepreneurs and quite educated. Stuarts Mortuary and Stuarts Moving are still prosperous today. They lived-in upper-class neighborhoods; participated in the Jack ‘n Jill association and were active in the Civil Rights Era (as they hosted Martin Luther King when he came to town).  Harry’s family background is quite a contrast.

James Alford was a slave owner and farmer from Noonan, Georgia. He would move and resettle in Alabama (with his slaves). After a short stint there, he took his family and slaves to Bossier Parrish, Louisiana. One of his slaves was Cicero Alford who resembles Robert E. Lee and is the great-grandfather of Harry. Harry’s other three great-grandfathers (Bill Brown, Thomas Watkins and John Salter) were also born slaves and freed in 1865 at the end of the Civil War.

Bill Brown was a legend. He was a “breeder.” His mother arrived from Africa to the slave market of Savannah, Georgia. He was a tall, muscular man and was used to impregnate female slaves – just like a rancher does with his cattle. It is rumored that he fathered at least 100 children in four states before the end of the Civil War. Thomas Watkins owned 255 acres which were lost to the family when he suddenly “disappeared” in 1875. John Salter was a Presbyterian minister in Webster Parrish, Louisiana and looks “quite white” from his picture.

Harry’s parents, Harry Sr. and Christine Alford, would leave Louisiana for the lure of California during World War II. The state was booming with the war industry and many of their siblings would follow. Veterans were guaranteed jobs at the many military facilities in the sunny state and that is how most Blacks were lured to it. Besides, unlike Indianapolis and Louisiana, there was no rigid Jim Crow style of discrimination.

Harry’s parents had no high school to go to when they were being raised in rural Louisiana, replete with red clay and no asphalt. The nearest Black high school was 40 miles away in Shreveport. In fact, the school year was only three months (in the winter when there were no crops to attend to). Thus, their education was up to the 8th grade. From there they were, in fact, like their peers and became young adults at 16 and marriage would come soon. That was better than Harry’s grandparents who were sharecroppers.

Harry and Kay – two children growing up. One on the West Coast and the other in the Midwest.  No one could predict that one day their paths would cross. The prospect of the beginning of the National Black Chamber of Commerce was far, far away.

Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the Chamber. Website:www.nationalbccorg. Emails:halford@nationalbcc.org kdebow@nationalbcc.org. 

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