Black Entrepreneurs’ Search for Alternatives to Capitalism in the 1930s

In the early 1930s, newly formed black business organizations helped alleviate the economic suffering of black entrepreneurs and were crucial to maintaining Detroit, Michigan’s business community in a time of economic crisis. However, not all black entrepreneurs turned to boosting business and economic Black Nationalism in response to the Great Depression. This presentation explores the survival strategies of African American business owners who sought economic alternatives to the American capitalist system. Dr. Aaron C. Toodle was a black entrepreneur who appears to have been involved with, or at least sympathetic to the communist cause. Originally from Plymouth, North Carolina, Toodle graduated from Howard University in 1917 and migrated to Detroit in 1919. By the 1930s, Toodle operated several drug stores in Detroit and was also the treasurer for Michigan People’s Finance Corporation and general manager of the Tribune-Independent newspaper. Toodle had mobilized and raised funds to establish Detroit’s first black-owned cemetery, and he served as the cemetery’s first president of the Board of Directors and general manager. So why would Toodle, who seemed to epitomize the conservative “Booker T. Washingtonians,” have connections to the Communist Party? My presentation offers several possible explanations. That some black entrepreneurs supported communism raises certain questions. For instance, why would they be interested in a system that seemingly would not support their interests as private business owners? And how did black entrepreneurs with communist leanings reconcile their existing petite bourgeoisie status with a potential economic revolution? Part of the answer to these questions lies in the precarious and discriminatory nature of being a black business owner in the US. I suggest that for black entrepreneurial “fellow travelers,” an economic revolution could seem more likely to lead to racial and economic equality than the existing system of capitalism.