Pioneering Black Entrepreneurs Who Shaped Communities.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s crucial to reflect on the remarkable individuals who defied societal norms, overcame challenges, and left a lasting impact on their communities. One such trailblazer is Anderson Hunt Brown, a visionary entrepreneur born on April 23, 1880, in West Virginia. Brown’s journey, along with other pioneers like Lelia Francis, Mary Ellen Pleasant, and Phillip A. Payton, Jr., exemplifies resilience, innovation, and determination in the face of adversity.

Anderson Hunt Brown: Building Wealth and Community Infrastructure

Early Life and Entrepreneurial Journey

Born on April 23, 1880, in West Virginia, Anderson Hunt Brown’s early life was shaped by the challenges faced by recently freed slaves. His parents, recognizing the importance of hard work, involved Brown and his siblings in various jobs to make ends meet. Despite only receiving a fourth-grade education, Brown displayed an entrepreneurial spirit from a young age.

Musical Pursuits and Entrepreneurial Ventures

As a teenager, Brown discovered a passion for music, learning to play the trombone. Alongside his brothers, he formed a band named “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” which toured Western cities, earning them $10 a week. This early exposure to the entertainment industry laid the foundation for Brown’s future ventures.

Upon returning to Charleston, Brown expanded his skill set by learning the art of meat cutting. This knowledge led him to open a successful butcher shop and restaurant, establishing his presence as an entrepreneur in the community.

Real Estate Investments and Community Development

Understanding the challenges Black entrepreneurs faced in building wealth in the early 1900s, Brown pursued a real estate investing course in Boston. Armed with newfound knowledge, he used his earnings to acquire a house at 1219 Washington Street, adjacent to Charleston High School.

In the early 1920s, Brown went beyond individual success and focused on community development. He built offices and rented them to local Black entrepreneurs, creating a thriving area known as “The Block.” This community space provided essential services, including a restaurant, hot dog stand, drug store, barbershop, laundry rooms, and a pool room, fostering a safe and supportive environment for the Black community.

Brown’s commitment to affordable housing also extended to buying land around Charleston, constructing houses, and renting them to Black community members who faced discrimination from predominantly white realtors.

By the time of his passing in 1974 at the age of 94, Anderson Hunt Brown had left an enduring legacy, having owned and managed up to 100 properties that played a crucial role in shaping the Black community in Charleston.

Lelia Francis: Ohio’s First Black Realtor

Early Life and Educational Background

Lelia Francis, a trailblazer in real estate, was born in Salt Lick, Kentucky. Her journey began with a solid educational foundation, as she graduated from Kentucky State University. Before venturing into real estate, Francis taught in rural schools in Kentucky, demonstrating her commitment to education and community development.

Pioneering Real Estate Career

Upon moving to Ohio, Lelia Francis made history by becoming the state’s first Black realtor and the second in the nation. Over a career spanning more than 50 years, she not only broke racial barriers but also contributed significantly to reshaping the real estate landscape for African Americans.

Francis played a crucial role in establishing the Unity Bank and an African American mortgage company, providing financial resources and opportunities for Black individuals seeking homeownership.

Her legacy extends beyond her real estate endeavors, embodying the resilience and determination of a woman who defied societal norms to pave the way for future generations of Black real estate professionals.

Mary Ellen Pleasant: Visionary in Gold Rush-era California

Early Life and Education

Born in 1814, Mary Ellen Pleasant’s early life was marked by challenges, including being separated from her parents and sent to work as a domestic servant for a white family in Massachusetts. Despite the hardships, Pleasant seized every opportunity to educate herself, learning to read and write while working in a shop.

Entrepreneurial Ventures During the Gold Rush

In 1852, during the California Gold Rush, Pleasant moved to San Francisco, where she worked as a cook and domestic for a wealthy white businessman. Earning a substantial monthly income of $500, Pleasant strategically invested in real estate, gold and silver mines, and various local businesses.

Pleasant’s shrewd business acumen led to the ownership of a prosperous chain of laundry businesses and a series of boarding houses. Notably, she often disguised herself as a servant to navigate the societal prejudices of the time.

Strategic Partnerships and Accumulating Wealth

One of Pleasant’s most notable partnerships was with bank clerk Thomas Bell. To avoid discrimination and questioning about her substantial fortune, Pleasant reportedly put many of her investments in Bell’s name, who was white. Together, they acquired shares in laundries, dairies, restaurants, and even Wells Fargo Bank, accumulating a combined fortune estimated at over $30 million by some historians.

Mary Ellen Pleasant’s legacy challenges the historical narrative, showcasing how a Black woman navigated and succeeded in a predominantly white and male business world.

Phillip A. Payton Jr.: ‘The Father of Harlem’

Early Life and Entry into Real Estate

Phillip A. Payton Jr., born on February 27, 1876, in Westfield, Massachusetts, arrived in New York in 1899. Initially working as a barber, handyman, and porter at a real estate office, Payton envisioned a unique approach to real estate management. His idea was to convince white landlords to allow him to manage their properties, renting them out to African Americans at higher rates, creating better opportunities for both parties in the long run.

‘The Father of Harlem’ and Community Transformation

Known as ‘The Father of Harlem,’ Payton’s success grew as he managed properties for white landlords, eventually buying and leasing his own buildings. He invested his life savings to open his own business, advertising “Colored man makes a specialty of managing colored tenements.”

Facing organized efforts by white residents, Payton countered with the formation of the “Afro-American Realty Company.” This strategic move aimed to buy and lease houses exclusively for Black occupancy, countering discriminatory practices and fostering community growth.

Harlem’s Transformation and Legacy

As Harlem saw an influx of African Americans, white residents, through the Hudson Realty Company, attempted to buy properties occupied by Black people and evict the tenants. In response, Payton’s Afro-American Realty Company played a crucial role in acquiring properties for Black residents, leading to the demographic shift that saw Harlem become home to as many as 70,000 Black individuals by 1913.

Phillip A. Payton Jr.’s Afro-American Realty Company grew to possess over one million dollars in assets at the time of his death in 1917 at the age of 41. His legacy as ‘The Father of Harlem’ extends beyond real estate, symbolizing a transformative force in community development and empowerment.


The stories of Anderson Hunt Brown, Lelia Francis, Mary Ellen Pleasant, Jesse Binga, and Phillip A. Payton Jr. resonate with resilience, determination, and a commitment to community upliftment. As we celebrate Black History Month, these pioneers serve as inspirations, reminding us of the indomitable spirit that has shaped the landscape of entrepreneurship and community development for African Americans throughout history.