Is There A Black Corporate America?”

Hands of Black corporate worker using a calculator

“In the sense that you (CopyLine) define Corporate America, I would say, no” – Dempsey J. Travis, CEO of Travis Realty, a self-made black multi-millionaire, who died July 1, 2009.

(This article was first published in CopyLine magazine, January 1991).

by Juanita Bratcher

When the “Good Ol’ Boys Club” networks comes together for a game of golf on the greenery of golf courses, or meet behind closed doors in the luxury of country clubs, some “Power Connections” are made, powerful deals are cut.

That’s the American way in White Corporate America. But what about Black Corporate America? Myth or fantasy? Is there really a Black Corporate America? Are Black businessmen, heads of major black corporations, really a part of the Corporate America picture? What about power plays, power connections, do they really fit into the scheme of things?

“In the sense that you (CopyLine) define Corporate America, I would say ‘no,” said Dempsey Travis, Chairman & CEO of Travis Realty, a self-made multi-millionaire who made most of his millions in the mortgage banking business and real estate development.

Travis, who is Black, is also the successful author of about six books (at his death, he had authored 21 books), all of which at one time or another were on the Best Sellers list. His most recent book is “Racism American Style: A Corporate Gift.”

While the number of Blacks working in the white corporate structure of America has increased, there are not that many Blacks sitting in the boardrooms of major white corporations, and if so, they are certainly not cutting powerful deals at golf courses and country clubs, simply because they have been shut out as members, the same with women and other minorities.

According to Travis, in terms of the “Ol’ Boys Network” in Black Corporate America, there is no such thing. And it’s not often that they strike up deals, that environment does not exist. However, many are networking through trade organizations like the minority Black Bankers in Illinois, real estate brokers associations, and other associations, depending on the business arena they are in.

Travis said the only real ties that Black businesspersons have with each other is through their trade organizations because “there are no ties through white organizations other than Blacks with Blacks.”

Then, too, Travis pointed out “I would think our agendas are somewhat different” (from that of White Corporate America), in that we spend a great deal of our time trying to reach back and pull somebody (else) along. Much of it is training time of people who had little exposure to corporate land, and that being the case, is like you reinvent the wheel. Many times those that are trained end up at white companies.

I trained many of the initial Black mortgage bankers; there were no other grounds for them, and they ended up at white companies. That can also be said of newspaper people. Many work for black newspapers and end up writing for major white media. Seldom is that the reverse case.”

Acknowledging that he is aware that the reason for this (Blacks leave black firms and go on to white firms) is because of money. Travis said there is merit to that because it also enhances living conditions.

Annually, Travis provides anywhere from 35 to 40 scholarships to high school graduates, those who are in college and running into financial difficulty. He said if you dig deep enough, you will find that there are other black businessmen with similar agendas.

His most recent project, the development of Chatham Park Place, the site of luxury townhouses, starting at $230,000, will keep middle-class Blacks in the community, he said. The site encompasses a whole block – 81st to 82nd Streets, Indiana to Prairie. In one weekend alone, about 900 people viewed the townhouses.

“Over the years, I’ve had many young friends say to me that they would love to live in Chicago, if it were comparable to Flossmoor, Olympia Fields and similar places,” he said.

Asked to comment on whether or not black businesses merge as do white businesses, Travis said, “There have been mergers, specifically in the insurance industry” naming some of those as Atlanta Life and Chicago Metropolitan Mutual Insurance companies; Unity Insurance and North Carolina Mutual; and Illinois Central Savings and Service Federal Savings.

Why didn’t black firms or investor groups come forward and bail out Freedom National Bank of New York before it folded? Travis said from what he read, assets and collateral were such that no one wanted to assume those obligations. With each loan, he added, the prospective buyer or investor group would have to look behind the scenes and find out how the loans got on the books.

The Freedom National Bank was founded by Jackie Robinson and other investors in 1964, but folded about two months ago, after bank officials failed to meet a deadline to come up with $7 million in new capital, among other things.

Black banks, he said, end up with bad real estate deals, as with large banks. “And if they don’t have back-up surplus, they go out of business. A loan doesn’t go bad overnight, but over a period of time. You have to put something in loan loss reserve to take care of it.”

The issue of whether black firms will merge or not has a great deal to do with personalities and images, Travis pointed out, using as an example, that many business owners look at their businesses as “my child,” and it is difficult to let it go. “They won’t give somebody else motherhood and fatherhood. They just want things to be theirs. I’ve enjoyed every damn minute of it (his business).”

Travis said racism continues to kick those Blacks in White Corporate America out. They, in turn, have a different notion of how business should run, and they will be more giving and exchanging because more endowed with structure of Corporate America.

Because black firms are not really a powerful force compared to White Corporate America – due to them representing a very small percentage – they cannot decide major decisions like White Corporate America – such as who will be president, who will be governor, he said. “To really break it down, probably 75 people in the whole damn country, outside the political arena, will dictate what happens,” he said.

Why a book like “Racism American Style: A Corporate Gift”? Travis said he wrote the book because he saw things over the past 20 years skipping backwards. During the Nixon Administration, “I saw the whole country going under a reactionary mode. It was only in the last year that I said somebody had to write about this thing. I knew a lot of people who were making over $100,000 a year, Black guys, getting kicked in their butts everyday.

The stories they had to tell, I actually thought were mindboggling. I asked could I get somebody to talk. I was able to go from lawyers to doctors, to CPAs, to corporate vice presidents in Corporate America and subsidiaries. There had been no book or revelation done in that fashion. I read hundreds of books on Corporate America, but it was like grits without salt. They never said these people are giving me a hard time and unwilling to open doors.”

Travis said the first Black CEO of a Fortune 500 company made one big mistake; “his picture appeared on the front page of Fortune Magazine and the ol’ boys came out of the woodwork, they didn’t want that, and in six months he was out.”

However, he noted, maybe in the next 20 to 25 years, there will probably be a Black Corporate America, Blacks doing mostly the same as White Corporate America.

The book has been on the “Bestsellers List for more than 18 weeks,” and Travis said he has reason to believe that it will stay on that list for another eight or ten weeks. “We are judging from momentum, he said.”