The National Negro Business League (NNBL), committed to the economic advancement of African Americans, was founded in 1900 by Booker T. Washington at a meeting in Boston; NNBL was based in Tuskegee after its founding. Dedicated to Washington's belief that black America should improve itself from within to earn white America's acceptance, the NNBL promoted black-owned businesses as the key to economic advancement. Washington was especially concerned with African Americans who were working in the South, where the agriculturally based economic system forced them into debt peonage, sharecropping, and tenant farming. Instead of being forced to deal with white business owners in the repressive Jim Crow South, he argued, blacks needed to create a competitive edge by developing businesses to serve their own communities. According to Washington's ideas of self improvement, blacks also would learn thrift, commerce, and honesty.
The NNBL operated through state and local chapters and included black businessmen and women as well as a number of middle-class blacks who hoped to establish enterprises of their own. Operated under the auspices of the "Tuskegee Machine," a network of employees, graduates, and students dedicated to Washington's beliefs, the NNBL relied on donations from wealthy white donors such as Andrew Carnegie and Julius Rosenwald that were used to establish businesses. NNBL was considered a failure by many in its early years because donors gave small-scale loans but did little to educate black business owners about how to run their businesses or sustain them through the acquisition of credit lines. Eventually the organization had 13 branch offices in Alabama, including Tuskegee, and more than 300 branches all over the United States, divided by region.
Washington's death in 1915 left a power vacuum, and Robert R. Moton, Washington's replacement as president of Tuskegee Institute, ended up as leader of the NNBL as well. During the 1920s, the organization was characterized by the continued struggle between the Tuskegee Machine and the forces of more radical black leaders such as W. E. B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph, who doubted white America's acceptance of black advancement and who viewed Washington's philosophy as accommodationist. Guided by conservative ideas and hampered by power struggles, the NNBL failed to meet the needs of the black business and middle classes in the Jim Crow climate of the 1930s and 1940s. In 1944, forces opposed to Tuskegee's dominance of the NNBL elected Roscoe Dunjee, radical editor of the Oklahoma City Black Dispatch, as president, ending Tuskegee's and thus Alabama's dominance of the organization.
The real success of NNBL was the annual meetings at which local businessmen could meet and discuss their businesses and offer
support and raise the morale of members. NNBL's biggest successes actually came in the North, such as with Julius Groves,
the "Negro Potato King," and H. C. Haynes, inventor of the Haynes Razor Strop.
Burrows, John H. The Necessity of Myth: A History of the National Negro Business League, 1900-1945. Auburn, Ala.: Hickory Hill Press, 1988.
Kinzer Robert, and Edward Sagarin. The Negro in American Business: The Conflict Between Separatism and Integration. New York: Greenberg, 1950.
Washington, Booker T. The Future of the American Negro. Boston: Small, Maynard, and Company, 1900.
Patricia Hoskins Morton
Published May 6, 2009
Last updated October 31, 2012