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Cohen, Walter L. (22 January 1860–29 December 1930), businessman and politician, was born a free person of color in New Orleans, Louisiana, the son of Bernard Cohen and Amelia Bingaman, a free woman of color. Although Cohen’s father was Jewish, he was raised as and remained throughout his life a Roman Catholic. His parents died when he was in the fourth grade, whereupon he had to quit school, though he later attended Straight University in New Orleans for several years. As a boy Cohen became a cigar maker and later worked in a saloon. His entrée into the world of politics came during the post–Civil War period of Reconstruction, when he worked as a page in the state legislature, then meeting in New Orleans. In the legislature, Cohen became acquainted with several influential black Republicans, among them, ...

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Herndon, Alonzo Franklin (26 June 1858–21 July 1927), barber and businessman, was born in Social Circle, Georgia, the son of a white father (name unknown) and a slave mother, Sophenia Herndon. Born on a farm in Walton County, forty miles east of Atlanta, he was a slave for the first seven and a half years of his life and, in his own words, “was very near it for twenty years more.” After emancipation, he worked as a laborer and peddler to help his family eke out a living in the hostile rural environment, where he was able to acquire only a few months of schooling. In 1878, with eleven dollars of savings, Herndon left his birthplace to seek opportunities elsewhere....

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Merrick, John (07 September 1859–06 August 1919), insurance company founder and entrepreneur, was born a slave in Sampson County, North Carolina. Merrick never knew his father, but his mother, Martha, was a strong presence in his life. Little is known of Merrick’s early years, except that, to help support his mother and brother, he began working in a brickyard in Chapel Hill when he was twelve. In 1877 he moved with his family to Raleigh, where he worked as a helper on the crew that constructed the original buildings on the campus of Shaw University. Merrick could have remained in the construction trade—he advanced to brick mason, a highly skilled and relatively well paid occupation—but he had far greater aspirations. Merrick’s first goal was to open his own barber shop, one of the few business opportunities open to black southerners at that time. So he soon quit being a brick mason and took a menial job as a bootblack in a barber shop, in the process learning the barbering trade. After becoming a barber in Raleigh, Merrick began to attract as his customers several of the area’s most prestigious men, among them tobacco magnates ...

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Pace, Harry Herbert (06 January 1884–26 July 1943), entrepreneur, was born in Covington, Georgia, the son of Charles Pace, a blacksmith, and Nancy Francis. Pace’s father died when he was an infant, but he was nonetheless able to secure a good education. He finished elementary school in Covington by the time he was twelve and seven years later graduated as valedictorian of his class at Atlanta University....

Article

Perry, Heman Edward (05 March 1873–03 January 1929), entrepreneur and bank and insurance company founder, was born in Houston, Texas, the son of John Perry and Lucy Compton. Heman Perry, the second of nine children, grew to manhood in post-Reconstruction Texas. His father, a former Georgia slave, reputedly ran away to Texas where he dabbled in various entrepreneurial activities; at times he operated a farm, dabbled in the trading of cotton and other commodities, rented out drays, and worked as an insurance agent. Although without formal training himself, John Perry believed firmly in the value of education for his children. Heman completed only a few years of formal schooling, but his father encouraged his self-education through reading and practical business experience....