By Harry C. Alford
I first started interacting with Black business advocates of Missouri in the late 1980s when my wife, Kay, and I started trying to build a national network of advocates pushing for real diversity in the business marketplace. Our intent was to create an atmosphere of demanding Black business empowerment and then to organize it into a national movement. The immediate markets were Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Louisville and Kansas City, Mo., all circling where we were in Indianapolis.
When outgoing Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut sent his people to inform me that a betrayal on the business diversity pledge made by the state, city and United Airlines was about to go down, and I was the only one who could stop it, I decided to call in our contacts. We had a showdown with United in Chicago and representatives from all cities showed up. St. Louis and Kansas City played a key role in our victory and that caused optimism for the Missouri market as we evolved. United was intimidated to the max and would soon relent. Thus, we started making millionaires through the contracting activity at the Indianapolis Airport via the United Airlines maintenance hub.
We threw down and launched the National Black Chamber of Commerce. To our surprise and disappointment, no one in the Missouri market stepped forward. We thought the Kansas City Black Chamber was coming, but their membership check bounced. This was the beginning of confusing signals coming out of Missouri, the Show Me State.
They could assemble a group for advocacy. I remember when the St. Louis guys were protesting the merger of Nations Bank and St. Louis-based Boatmen’s Bank. They did a protest on Wall Street by flying in a chartered Boeing 737 into La Guardia Airport filled with protestors. The late Rev. Louis Coleman of Louisville and I met them there and accompanied them in a formal march down Wall Street for they had obtained a permit from the city of New York. These St. Louis guys topped that with a chartered Boeing 747 that landed in Washington, D.C. for the Million Man March in 1995. A few years later, they would go out and shut down Interstate 70 outside of St. Louis to protest poor performance in minority contracting on highway projects. That made national news.
They had potential but it wasn’t consistent. Our guy in Kansas City was fired by the local contractors group there and that was the end of that. As the National Black Chamber of Commerce grew to become the largest Black business organization in the nation and the world, Missouri just could not move in our direction. As we grew, Missouri stood frozen and each time I would venture there, I found nothing that would indicate they were ready to join the economic empowerment movement. That state of inertia would last up to the spring of 2015.
We all watched the horror of Ferguson, Mo. last August. Another police shooting of a Black male set off a national outrage. Eventually, we got a call: “Please come to Ferguson, we want to start a Black Chamber.” Board Member Larry Ivory, based in Illinois and a regional vice president of the region that included Missouri, went to Ferguson. He reported that time for Ferguson and the rest of Missouri just might be happening.
We jumped in and last week the Missouri Black Chamber of Commerce was incorporated. From there we will expand from Jefferson County to St. Louis County, inclusive of Ferguson. This will be a slow and deliberate rollout. The founders of this chapter have already structured an on-the-job training program. Also, a curriculum involving fiber optic training that leads to a job in the cable market has been approved by the Jefferson County Community College.
Our visit to Ferguson was extremely educational. Ferguson, is a pretty suburb of St. Louis. The trees and landscaping blend in nicely with the very clean subdivisions. Even the public housing apartments are neat and well kept. It is in appearance a good, solid American small town. The problem appears to be disenfranchisement as a result of lack of involvement in the political process by the Black population. They had no say in the decision-making and that was to their detriment. The previous election had a turnout of only 12 percent. This most current turnout was 29 percent, which means the Black population (67 percent) is starting to understand what it takes to have democracy and freedom in America. From one city council member to three council members is improvement. The next election, if the people continue, will result in a Black mayor and a majority-Black city council. Things will improve.
The new chapter will strengthen the community and chapters in various cities will start popping up in Missouri. By this, Black business will increase its market share, jobs will start to multiply and political clout can become a reality. We look on with excitement.