August is National Black Business Month, a time to spotlight the considerable contributions Black Americans make to our economy. When taking into account how African Americans in Arkansas and the South were thrown abruptly into the free market upon emancipation in 1865, it is amazing that the nearly 120,000 freedmen in the state were able to survive and in some cases thrive.
Black illiteracy neared 100 percent, and the state had no public schools to speak of at the end of the war. The Federal Freedmen’s Bureau provided limited assistance, promising far more than could be delivered. Still, Black men — and a surprising number of women — were able to build wealth over time, even when normal obstacles facing businessmen were magnified by institutionalized racism.
Enslaved Black Arkansans demonstrated more than a little knack for making money. In towns the enslaved were often “hired out,” especially those with special skills such as blacksmiths and carpenters. Historian Carl Moneyhon described the process: “Many skilled slaves were allowed to hire out their own time for wages … paying their masters an agreed-upon share of their wages.”
Sometimes hired-out slaves were able to do remarkable things. James Alexander, an enslaved barber living in Helena, had his own barbershop, even advertising in the local newspaper. He was able to save enough money to purchase the freedom of his family, though he remained a slave until the Civil War.
Mary John, a famed cook and caterer belonging to James Scull of Arkansas Post, saved $800 over 30 years to purchase her freedom, later opening an inn and tavern. (As I have written in the past, Mary John should be inducted into the Arkansas Business Hall of Fame.)
The federal and state governments did little to prepare Black Arkansans who gained their freedom at the end of the Civil War. Thousands demonstrated their newfound freedom by leaving farms and moving to towns. The Freedmen’s Bureau, with some help from the military, was given responsibility for negotiating contracts between the farm owners and the freedmen.
The Freedman’s Savings Bank, chartered by Congress in 1865, was separate from the Freedmen’s Bureau. The bank, which had an all-white board, had a branch in Little Rock. A review of the bank’s accounts demonstrates how eager the freedmen were to participate in the emerging post-slavery economy.
While most depositors were individuals, a number of recently created Black churches also used the bank, such as Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Little Rock. The bank ultimately failed due to a combination of poor management, corruption, and a general economic downturn. The failures of both the Freedmen’s Bureau and the Freedman’s Savings Bank added to the hurdles facing Black families as they tried to find their way through the early years of freedom.
One of the depositors in the Freedman’s Bank was Green W. Thompson, who left his slave-era wife and child behind in Ouachita County when he moved to Little Rock soon after the war. He saved his money and opened a small neighborhood grocery store, using his profits to buy real estate.
A number of freedmen invested in town lots. Green Thompson eventually built Thompson Hall, a rental facility with a space for retail business space and another for meetings, weddings and parties. Abraham Miller, born into slavery in St. Francis County, found economic success in Helena, where his mother fled during the war. He started out as a drayman — hauling cotton and delivering freight — but soon diversified. He came to own more than 60 rental properties in Helena. His wife, Eliza Ross Miller, is believed to be the first woman in Arkansas to build and operate a movie theater.
Ferdinand Havis and Wiley Jones, two exceedingly successful Pine Bluff businessmen, began their careers as barbers. Both invested heavily in real estate, and both owned saloons. Havis came to own 2,000 acres of farmland and several rental properties in Pine Bluff. Like Green Thompson in Little Rock, Havis built a large brick commercial structure which became a popular meeting place for Pine Bluff’s large Black population.
Wiley Jones was more diversified than Havis in business undertakings. He owned a large retail business, the Southern Mercantile Co., and became an investor in a local Jefferson County spa known as White Sulphur Springs.
In the summer of 1886, Jones became the first Black American to receive a franchise for a streetcar system. The Wiley Jones Streetcar Line, initially powered by mules, was later electrified.
As his wealth grew, Jones was able to indulge his passion for breeding and racing horses. He built a 55-acre park, which included a harness racing track, where he kept his 24 horses. Dying without heirs in 1904, Jones left an estate valued at more than $300,000.
Wiley Jones was described after his death as the richest Black person in Arkansas, but I suspect that title should go to Scott Bond from Madison in St. Francis County. Born enslaved in rural Mississippi about 1852, Bond was able through determination and hard work to build a diversified group of businesses.
Over the years he purchased several farms, ultimately totaling 12,000 acres of land. He also invested in town lots, and his Madison Mercantile Company sold everything from meat to coffins. He built a number of cotton gins so as to better control costs.
Unlike most farmers who cleared their land by burning the trees, Bond built a sawmill and sold the resulting lumber. He also owned a brick making firm, and sold fruit from his large orchards. Perhaps Bond’s most shrewd investment was in a gravel mining operation. Many of the railroad beds in eastern Arkansas were built of gravel from Bond’s land.
In March 1933, at the age of 81, Scott Bond was killed by one of his prized purebred Hereford bulls.
In 1974 I traveled to Madison in search of any remnants of the Scott Bond empire. My community contact told me that she was only vaguely aware of the Bond family. Efforts to locate Bond’s mercantile store proved fruitless.
As I was driving out of town in despair, a sign appeared on the street announcing the location of Bondol Laboratories. The name “Bondol” was enough to get my attention, so I stopped. Inside I met Dr. Charles Latimer, a well-known chemistry educator who had joined with Scott Bond’s son U.S. Bond and another businessman in forming Bondol Laboratories in 1939, six years after Scott Bond’s death.
Latimer informed me that the business was known for its line of embalming chemicals. Bondol Laboratories provided about one-half of the embalming supplies used by Black undertakers nationally in 1954.
Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]
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