Friday, February 19, 2010

A Missing Black History by Freddy Boisseau

I was in a book store and noticed that they had pulled books out front for “Black History Month”. That got me thinking, did any book in the book store deal with a very impressive African-American that I have come to admire. So I asked a store employee to see if he could find any books in the store about this individual. After searching several different ways, he was not able to find any books that mention this person in the store's inventory system. This was not surprising given this person’s history.

The story I was looking for was about Samuel B. Fuller, a very successful African-American businessman. He was born in 1905 to a sharecropper family in Monroe, Louisiana. His family was so poor that he was working at age nine selling door to door and dropped out of school in the sixth grade. This good training would serve him well later in life. When he was fifteen his family moved to Memphis, and two years latter his mother passed away leaving him and his six siblings to fend for themselves.

In 1928 he moved to Chicago, and worked as a coal hiker and then became an insurance salesman. Doing well, he shortly moved up to a managerial position. It was during this time he took $25 and bought some soap, which he then sold door to door. This was so successful that he later invested $1,000 dollars in the business and incorporated Fuller Products Corporation in 1929.

By 1939 he was one of Chicago's most prominent black businessmen, with 30 products in his line, a small factory and a team of salesman working for him. In 1947 he wanted to expand his business and purchased the Boyer International Laboratories, a cosmetics manufacturer. Since this company’s products were geared to the white market. Because it was felt that making this public would hurt sales, this sale was kept quite.

By 1959 his company had expanded considerably. His company sales had peaked at 10 million dollars, he had over 300 items in his inventory and sales force of 5000. He had built a home worth a quarter of a million dollars. He was had an interest in several other cosmetic companies and was the major shareholder of the Pittsburgh Courier Publishing Company. This company was the owner of oldest black newspaper, the New York Age, and the largest circulated black newspaper, the Pittsburgh Courier. He also invested in real estate, owning the Chicago's Regal Theater, the Chicago's counterpart to Harlem's Apollo Theater, along with properties in several major cities including New York. He also owned the Fuller Guaranty Corporation and the Fuller-Philco Home Appliance Center.

Samuel Fuller was known as a master salesman and a great motivational speaker. The November 1957 Ebony magazine stated the following about him, “he cajoles, questions, lectures, coddles and spanks his dealers with words that have come to be gospel to Fullerites.”. He was also quoted as saying in the same article “The door-to-door salesman is the backbone of today's economy.... At Fuller Products Company, there's only one race--the human race.... A man doesn't have to have a lot of degrees behind his name to earn $10,000 a year.” Mr Fuller would also tell his black employees that they could do anything, telling them “anything the white man can do, so can you. Don't ever feel the way is closed to you because you are a Negro. All you need is faith in God and faith in yourself.”

When the White Citizen's Council learned that Boyer had been sold to him, they boycotted his products throughout the South. The fact that he would not go along with the view of the black leaders of his time led to problems with groups like the NAACP. He was very critical of them, because he felt they spent too much time trying to change the views of whites and not helping blacks. He said “Negroes are not discriminated against because of the color of their skin. They are discriminated against because they have not anything to offer that people want to buy.” These views caused the African-Americans leaders of that time to call for a boycott by their organizations.

These boycotts were the start of his downfall. In 1964 the SEC charged him selling unregistered promissory notes and he was placed on a five-year probation. A social service agent campaigned against him giving credit to people on welfare, and convinced them to not honor their debts. This created a loss of more then a million dollars, and forced Fuller to sell off his interest in the publishing companies and his retail stores. In spite of taking these actions to save his company, he had to file for bankruptcy in 1969. He was able to reorganize his business under bankruptcy laws and in 1972 had over $300,000 in profits. In 1975 his company was producing 60 products including cosmetics and other beauty products.

Mr. Fuller was a person that divided his time between business and civic duties, including being the head of the South Side chapter of the NAACP. He was also known for supporting other African-American businessmen, including those competing against him. When Johnson Products, a competing cosmetic company, lost their facilities due to fire he allowed them to use the Fuller facilities while they rebuilt.

Samuel Fuller passed away on October 24, 1988 most likely from kidney failure at St. Francis Hospital in Blue Island. At that time, his survivors included his wife, five daughters, 13 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren. He should be best remembered as a great entrepreneur and a mentor, who never judged a person by the color of their skin, but by their character. Instead you almost never hear a thing about him today.

This is why I admire this individual. Here is a man with a sixth grade education that during the time of Great Depression and a time of blatant racism, who built up a multimillion dollar and diverse company. Just doing that, without the handicap of racism thrown in, is reason enough to admire what he did. I believe Samuel Fuller is someone that should be promoted to our children, instead of hidden in the shadows of history.