Businesses owned by blacks kept up with other businesses in terms of revenue growth during the prosperous economic times of the 1980s, and black entrepreneurs formed new businesses at more than twice the rate of the economy as a whole, according to 1987 figures released today by the Census Bureau.

However, most of the new businesses created by blacks were sole proprietorships with no paid employees, according to the Census report.

"I'd like to see as many black firms with paid employees as possible. Those are real firms, " said William Bradford, chairman of the finance department at University of Maryland.

"Black firms did gain from the expansion in the '80s, by virtue of their being able to take advantage of the growth in the economy and the change in local politics that brought more blacks into the picture of getting more business from local government," he said.

Conducted every five years by the Census Bureau, the survey is regarded as the nation's most complete portrait of the condition of black businesses in America. The bureau will release similar surveys of firms owned by women, Asian Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans in coming months.

The Washington area remained in third place behind New York and Los Angeles in terms of the number of black-owned businesses. New York led the way at 28,063, with Los Angeles and Washington both topping 23,000.

Nationwide, sales by black-owned firms, an important measure of financial health, kept pace with the U.S. economy during the 1980s, the report said. From 1982 to 1987, receipts for black-owned companies increased by 105 percent, compared with a 106 percent increase in receipts for all U.S. firms, the report said.

In 1987, the number of black-owned firms in the United States rose 38 percent to 424,000 from 308,000 in 1982, the report said. In comparison, the number of firms nationwide rose 14 percent in the same period.

The report also showed that the growth rate of the number of black businesses continued to climb. The 38 percent climb from 1982 to 1987 outstripped the 33 percent increase from 1977 to 1982.

Asked to comment on the survey and on the state of black-owned businesses in the nation, Black Enterprise magazine Publisher Earl Graves said, "It's part of the main event. Twenty years ago that was not the case. People were still living with stereotypes. We were not able to plug into the traditional sources of finances, whereas today we can."

When viewed in relation to prior Census surveys, there was a small increase in the size of some black-owned business, said Margaret Simms, deputy director of research for the Joint Center for Political Studies, a D.C.-based think tank that specializes in minority issues. "Black enterprises are moving into larger types of operations, but the majority of them are still fairly small," Simms said.

Bradford and others warned that the immediate future for black-owned firms may not be as fruitful as the 1980s. Because the majority of black-owned firms are small and undercapitalized, they are especially vulnerable to a downturn in the economy.

"In the next five-year period, we should see an increase {in the number of black-owned firms}, but not as much as we saw in 1982 to 1987 primarily because of the recession and oil crisis we are experiencing," Bradford said.

Although scholars will examine the survey for its sociological import, the survey, when put to another use, could influence the very thing it was designed to measure.

The report will be widely used by county governments to justify programs in which government contracts are set aside for minority firms. A 1989 Supreme Court decision requires cities with minority businesses set aside programs to prove past and continued discrimination against minority firms and to base the percentage of contracts set aside on the availability and capacity of minority firms.