Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Over 90 years ago, Charles H. James' grandfather started a pack-peddling business in Charleston, W.Va., added a few horses and traded calico for farm products. The modest wholesale food business was passed onto James, 47, and now ranks 87th on Black Enterprise Magazine's annual list of 100 Top Black Businesses. And James is a leading citizen of Charleston.
Three years ago, after 23 years with a multinational lead company, George Smith, 52, started his own oil field pipe and fittings sales firm in Houston. he proudly remarks that he has only a third-grade education, but last year his company made $6 million and since January, $11 million. he's number 68 on the list.
This all-male group - they call themselves the "BE 100" - is truly a fraternity, a small, select group of opinionmakrs and leaders in black and white America.
And they are jovial, loud, unabashed, and backslapping, like a fraternity.Wednesday night the "BE 100" gathered under the chandelier at a Kennedy Center restaurant, drinking imported wine, wearing the uniform of their success - the three-piece suit.
They cheered a younger brother just getting started in his career, norman Nichols Jr., 26, the restaurant's chef. And they commiserated with one of their most successful coleagues, Charles Wallace, who holds the number 7 and 11 spots on the lists, with his fuel oil empire. Wallace, an orphaned ex-sharecropper with a 12th-grade education, has run into delays for refinancing from the federal government.
"What my detractors are worried about is that I am taking $1 billion out of the American system and putting it into the black community," said Wallace, philosophically. "I am trying to show that you don't have to stop. There is no limit."
For six years Black Enterprise, the country's only national magazine for minority businesspeople and professionals, has compiled a list of pacesetters and celebrated its existence. This year the collective revenues of those listed were $896 million, ranging from the first, Motown Industries, at $61.4 million, to H. F. Henderson Industries, a controls and instrument manufacturer, at $3.6 million.
Wednesday the group met in Washington for the first time, and at the invitation of President carter, had a briefing and reception at the White House in the afternoon.
"The White House meetings were of prime interest to me because some of the conversation did cover imports and exports," said Henry Henderson, whose West Caldwell, N.J. firm produces weighing scales. "But we are not like the Fortune Magazine group that all have an import-export department. So I hope everyone was satisfied." Much of the buzzing at the dinner was about a reported statement by a Commerce Department official earlier in the day that a ruling a favor of the Bakke case by the Supreme Court might affect minority business setaside programs.
The dean of the black businessmen, a short, slightly stooped man the rest were calling the "$22-million man," A. G. Gatson of Birmingham, Ala., thought the president and other officials at the briefing did just fine.
"I like him," said gaston, 86, the owner of a bank, an insurance company, a real estate business and a funeral home chain. "I'm not proud of my money, but what I am pleased about is that I made the sacrifice when it counted. I helped Martin King and Andy Young in the civil rights struggle and now these young men have doors open to them." Andrew Young, the ambassador to the United Nations, spoke briefly at the dinner.
"What does this all mean?" echoed Charles H. James as he looked over the crowd. "I guess, by the numbers, it means we are still scarce. But we have sense of belonging." Interrupted Eugene V. Roundtree, the list's 73rd entrepreneur with a $4.7-million stainless steel industrial firm, "the listing gives you credibility."
James quickly added a disclaimer: "Yes, credibility, but no short cuts."