All Commentary
Friday, February 12, 2016

McCoy, Reynolds, and Pelham: Black Entrepreneurs, Models Too Often Forgotten

Real Heroes: Black Entrepreneurs

Since Black History Month was inaugurated in 1976, Americans have made special note each February of the achievements of black citizens. They’ve played important and often inspirational roles in shaping the country’s history, from the days of slavery through Jim Crow to substantial, if not yet complete, political and social equality today.

It’s understandable that in highlighting this important minority group, we heavily emphasize those men and women who escaped bondage or those in more recent decades who led the civil rights movement. In the case of the latter, we know the names well because they are so recent — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. being foremost among them.

Frederick Douglass, the eloquent abolitionist and former slave, extolled the importance of constructive agitation when he declared in an 1857 speech,

The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims, have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

Black history in America, however, isn’t just about overcoming slavery and discrimination. It’s also about the less-familiar names of black citizens who excelled at entrepreneurship, invention, the creation of wealth. They are numerous and deserve greater recognition for their heroism.

Twenty years ago, my good friend and favorite historian, Dr. Burton Folsom, told me about three such people — Elijah McCoy, Fred Pelham, and Humphrey H. Reynolds.

The Real McCoy

McCoy was born in 1843 in Colchester in the province of Ontario, Canada, where his parents had settled as fugitives from slavery. The family returned to the United States five years later and settled in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Though poor as church mice, their hard work and thrifty habits eventually paid off. Elijah was sent to Scotland at age 15 to study mechanical engineering, and he returned afterward to work for the Michigan Central Railroad.

Locomotives at the time overheated easily, and trains were forced to stop often to apply oil to engine parts to reduce friction. McCoy invented a “lubricating cup” that applied the oil without the need to halt the journey. He secured a patent for it in 1872 and continued to improve the device for years thereafter.

“Others tried to imitate McCoy’s invention, but he kept ahead of them with his superior engineering skills,” writes Folsom. “His standard of quality was so high that to separate his lubricating cup from cheaper imitations it became known as ‘the real McCoy,’ which many believe to be the origin of the famous phrase. The grateful management of the Michigan Central promoted McCoy and honored him as a teacher and innovator for the railroad.”

That 1872 patent was the first of 57 he picked up during a long and productive life. When he was 77, he earned one for an improved airbrake lubricator; at age 80, he patented a vehicle wheel tire. He founded the Elijah McCoy Manufacturing Company in Detroit in 1920 to produce and market his inventions and died in 1929 at the ripe old age of 86, a well-loved and celebrated achiever.

Making Trains Breathable

While McCoy improved the operation of locomotives at the front of the train, Humphrey H. Reynolds made the rail cars more comfortable in the back. Whether the locomotive burned coal or wood, the windows remained shut in the cars behind so the smoke wouldn’t choke the passengers. On hot days, those cars could be unbearable.

In 1883, Reynolds invented a ventilator that permitted air to flow into passenger cars while keeping out the dust and soot. When the Pullman Company tried to grab the patent rights for the idea, Reynolds successfully sued for $10,000 and won the right to profit from his invention.

Building Bridges

Another black man, Fred Pelham, not only built bridges to people metaphorically; he constructed real ones, too, all over Michigan. Some of them (like his unique “skew-arch bridge” in Dexter) are still standing more than a century since his untimely death in 1895 at age 37.

Pelham’s parents were free blacks in Virginia who left that state in the 1850s on a quest for opportunity in Michigan. Fred excelled in mathematics and civil engineering at the University of Michigan, where he was president of his class in 1887 and the first black to graduate with an engineering degree. He designed and built at least 18 bridges, known for their beauty and structural integrity.

The Great Men of Tuskegee

Booker T. Washington (1856–1915) is still reasonably well known, but he fell out of favor with black leadership in the 1960s. That’s when Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs shifted the focus away from black entrepreneurship and ushered in government handouts. The message of Washington, who was born a slave, had always been what he called “self-help” through education, employment, and starting a business. He also stressed personal integrity. “Character,” he said, “not circumstances, make the man.”

Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama to educate blacks to develop their talents for America’s industrial society. Business enterprise would be the ticket to progress, he felt. “More and more thoughtful students of the race problem,” he said, “are beginning to see that business and industry constitute what we may call the strategic points in its solution.”

Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, I learned to admire George Washington Carver (1864–1943) as another great black achiever. A pioneering botanist and inventor, he devised techniques for replenishing depleted soils and popularized the peanut. He researched, experimented, and taught at the Tuskegee Institute for 47 years. Time magazine once dubbed him “the black Leonardo” because of his multiple talents. “When you do the common things in life in an uncommon way,” he once advised, “you will command the attention of the world.”

Carver was a gentle man of generous spirit, a committed Christian who urged peace, reconciliation, and forgiveness. “Fear of something is at the root of hate for others, and hate within will eventually destroy the hater,” he cautioned. “Keep your thoughts free from hate, and you need have no fear from those who hate you.” He’s buried next to Booker T. Washington on the Tuskegee University campus.

A Black Millionairess

Let’s not forget the women. Black entrepreneurship is not a province of one sex.

One of the earliest American examples was Clara Brown, born into slavery in 1800. Set free by her owner in the 1850s, she traveled throughout the West, opening one successful laundry business after another. She settled finally in Colorado and became the first black female businesswoman to cash in on the Gold Rush.

Have you seen the highly acclaimed 1989 film Glory, starring Matthew Broderick and Denzel Washington? It told the inspiring story of the 54th Massachusetts, the first regiment of all-black soldiers to fight for the North in the Civil War. Though the movie never mentioned her by name, a black woman named Christiana Carteaux Bannister was a major financier of the regiment. An activist for the Underground Railroad, Bannister made her money as the “hair doctress” of Providence, Boston, and Worcester. She started and managed thriving beauty salons in all three New England cities.

As I wrote in a previous Real Heroes column, Madam C.J. Walker deserves recognition as the first black woman to become a millionaire entirely from her own efforts, not from an inheritance or from a wealthy husband. She turned a bad hair day into a thriving business selling a line of hair care products and cosmetic creams. Millions of black women were inspired by her example, and tens of thousands were directly empowered by working for the company she founded.

Motown Music

Record producer and songwriter Berry Gordy of Detroit provides us with a still-living example of a black entrepreneur whose work virtually everybody knows and loves, even if they don’t recognize his name. He founded Motown Records in 1959. The artists he signed and promoted are legendary: Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Commodores, the Jackson 5, and many more.

Gordy started his company in his small Detroit house, which is now a museum. Some years later, the city of Detroit passed an ordinance banning home-based businesses. What could have been a model for many poor but aspiring entrepreneurs in the Motor City — starting a business in your house when you don’t yet have the capital to buy or rent a building — became almost impossible. That sad fact is undoubtedly one of many reasons for Detroit’s long economic decline.

While the major media today seem to focus inordinately on blacks who are active in politics, academia, and “community organizing” of various forms, black entrepreneurship is alive and well, creating wealth for millions in America and beyond. Do an Internet search for “black entrepreneurs” and you’ll find an abundance of names in virtually every industry. That speaks to a degree of economic progress that would have seemed unimaginable a century and a half ago.

So when Black History Month rolls around each February, let’s remember — and celebrate — not only the speechmakers, but the wealth creators, too.

For further information, see:

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is