(Roughly) Daily

“You are where you are today because you stand on somebody’s shoulders”*…

Leon Prieto and Simone Phipps, two management professors who are husband and wife and and the co-authors of African American Management History, have been working to fill in the gaps in business history left by the omission of Black business stories. The pair argue that the ideas supported by African American managers during the first few decades of the 20th century, a relative golden age for Black business, hold lessons that are relevant in this century– perhaps especially the example of Charles Clinton Spaulding, who led North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, the largest African American life insurance company of the times, for 50 years until his death in 1952…

Several years ago, reading a book about Black business history, and then checking the bibliography for original sources, Prieto discovered a kind of manifesto Spaulding had written in 1927 for the Pittsburgh Courier, the largest Black newspaper of the era, reaching hundreds of thousands of readers. Under the headline “The Administration of Big Business,” Spaulding shared his views on running a major firm. To his mind, the eight fundamentals of operations that demanded a leader’s attention were: cooperating and teamwork; authority and responsibility; division of labor; adequate manpower; adequate capital; feasibility analysis; advertising budget; and conflict resolution.

His article, the scholars note, was published 20 years before similar theories about the functions of management by Henri Fayol, a French theorist and textbook mainstay, were translated for American readers. Despite the overlap in the two men’s thinking, only Fayol has been awarded institutional recognition. (The podcast Talking About Organizations, which invited Prieto and Phipps to be guests on the show last year, has transcribed Spaulding’s article in full, here.)

In the writings and speeches in Spaulding’s archives, housed at Duke University, Phipps and Prieto discovered an unrelenting call for cooperation and consensus-building within organizations, and an emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between a company and the world outside its doors.

Spaulding’s devotion to a collective style of working and to corporate social responsibility was not an isolated case of the era. Nor did it materialize strictly as a response to the times, the pair assert. Rather, they hypothesize that the cooperative model that was popular among Black businesses then—and which infused the way free-market enterprises operated in the Black Wall Streets of Durham and other American cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma—grew out of a much older African philosophy called Ubuntu, a Nguni Bantu word meaning humanity, derived from an idiom that’s sometimes translated as “I am because we are” or “a person is a person through other persons.” Ubuntu as a world view that stresses our interconnectedness was popularized globally in the 1960s, primarily by Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop emeritus and Nobel Peace Prize-winning human rights activist.

The sense that ubuntu defines our human experience is common in several African cultures, Prieto says, and manifests in a range of cooperative financial models that flourish across the African diaspora. (For example, he had grown up contributing to sou sou, or a savings club, he tells his students in lectures, and it was a sou sou that allowed him to purchase the plane ticket that brought him the US.) It may not have been called ubuntu, but that moral code survived as a shared value among Africans enslaved in the US, Prieto and Phipps say…

Stories from which we can learn: “The history of Black management reveals an overlooked form of capitalism,” from @qz.

* “You are where you are today because you stand on somebody’s shoulders. And wherever you are heading, you cannot get there by yourself. If you stand on the shoulders of others, you have a reciprocal responsibility to live your life so that others may stand on your shoulders. It’s the quid pro quo of life. We exist temporarily through what we take, but we live forever through what we give.” – Vernon Jordan


As we rethink the rules, we might recall that it was on this date in 1950 that Dr. Carter G. Woodson, a noted, historian, journalist, author and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, began “Negro History Week”– the forerunner to Black History Month.


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