Abstract: African-American Businessmen in the Postwar South

Robert C. Kenzer


This study examines all the African Americans who were credit-rated in the South during the first fifteen years after the Civil War. It analyzes these 1,156 African-American firms based solely on the ratings themselves to determine the pace at which firms were created, their types, locations, and structures, as well as the factors causing them to succeed or fail. In addition, it combines the credit ratings with the manuscript censuses of 1850 to 1880 to reveal what type of individuals created these enterprises, especially their level of property ownership, as well as whether they were enumerated in the manuscript censuses as being either black or mulatto. It emphasizes that despite the undercapitalization of these firms, they remained in business at a rate comparable to similar types of white-controlled firms. Further, it underscores the degree to which antebellum freedom as well as complexion shaped business success. In a sense, the Civil War liberated these antebellum free people by removing traditional restrictions, eliminating many white competitors who died in the Civil War, and literally emancipating millions of potential customers for their enterprises. Finally, it suggests the critical role politics,particularly on the local level, played in shaping the African-American business community.