When I was 9 years old, in Monroe, La. [he was 73 at this time], I started sellin' Cloverine salve. I wanted to become a man. When I became a man, I wanted to produce somethin' similar to what I was sellin'. Today that's what I'm doin'.
My family were sharecroppers. When I was 10, they leased some land, bought a mule, and were farmin' themselves. When I was 15, we moved to Memphis. My father left home. Two years after, my mother died and left seven children. When she lay dyin', she asked me to take care of the children. I was 17. I worked and sold and was able to take care of those kids.
I only received a sixth-grade education, but my mother told me before she passed: "The good white people give themselves nine months schooling each year. They give you three." We received only three months' schooling each year out on the farm. She said: "It's not that they are unfair, but they believe you can learn as much in three months as they can learn in nine. Whatever you do, son, don't disappoint the good white folks."
I had learned that reading people was ruling people. When you know you don't know, you gotta read. I didn't just read for entertainment. I was seeking understanding. I found in America in 1912, there were 4,043 millionaires. Only 89 had high school educations. Some didn't finish grammar school. So I found myself in good company. This was the greatest motivation I ever received, when I knew there were these white men in America who made good without formal education.
I left Memphis to come north where there was more people to sell to. I hitchhiked in Chicago and arrived on the 12th of May, 1928. By this time, I got married and had five children. I got a job in a coal yard. I sent back for my family. The owner seemed to like me and said he was gonna help me educate my children. I told him I didn't want security from anybody, so I quit the job.
After that, I started sellin' burial insurance door to door. A magazine was printin' the names of people that were getting $15,000 and over. The president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was getting $50,000 a year in 1934. The president of Lever Brothers, a soap company, was earning $485,000. I quit sellin' insurance and started sellin' soap.
I took $25 and bought me some soap and started sellin' it from door to door. That was in the Depression, 1935. Because people was out of work, it wasn't hard to recruit people to do any kind of work. The thing that discouraged people out sellin', they thought people didn't have any money. But soap was sellin' for 10 cents a cake, and it was hard to find people that didn't have a dime.
I didn't count the hours. I sold as long as people would let me in their homes. They'd say they didn't have money. I would take the order, bring it back when they gonna have the money.
I always believed that I wasn't exceptional. I was an ordinary person. All people are ordinary. I learned that all men are created equal. The rich boy has money but no initiative. The poor boy has no money but initiative. Initiative will get the money. This is the thing every kid should be told when he first comes to America. The greatest advantage in the world is to be born in America. Only in America, you're free to eat if you can find something to eat and free to starve if you don't. In America, they won't let you starve, but you'd be better off starving than go on relief. You may not be physically dead on relief, but you are spiritually.
What is hurting youth today is pacifiers. Dope. Nature gave you energy, and you're not supposed to relax that energy. You're supposed to use that energy to make the world a better place to live because you are here.
In 1935, with $25, I started buyin' my merchandise from Boyer National Laboratories. They were reluctant about creditin' me, so I told 'em I was gonna buy the company out. Twelve years later, in 1947, I bought Boyer out. I still own Boyer's.
By 1939, I'd organized the Chicago Chamber of Commerce. Black business. We had a slogan: For economic emancipation, trade with your own. Out from that came several minority businesspeople. I trained a lot of young men who have succeeded.
In 1965, I bought a department store. I wanted to start my people thinkin' about retail sellin' in our own community. People that was receiving relief, I was the first gave them credit.
I had 13 corporations operatin' at one time: box factory, newspaper, farms, and whatnot. I wanted to teach people how to do business for themselves, but they wasn't ready. It cost me a fortune. I had an asset of $8 million and a liability of $3 million, a cash flow of $10 million, but I could not get credit from the established white sources.
The banks denied me credit because they'd never known a black man being engaged in a department store. They had never known a black man to own theaters. I owned a whole block.
I decided to go to my own people. The government investigators found out that we didn't go about it in the right way, so we had to drop that. It caused the downfall of my whole empire. By 1968, we were in bankruptcy. It's been very hard because I was then 65 years old. Everybody's told me I was too old to get started again. But I'm on my way back, using the same method I used when I started with $25. I never had doubts.
Didn't the civil rights movement affect the sale of some of your cosmetics -- for instance, hair straighteners, with the oncoming Afro styles?
It not only hurt our business, it hurt black business as a whole. The biggest industry black folks had at the time were the barber and beauty trade. When the Afro style come, blacks stopped going to the barbershop and beauty parlor. They're just beginnin' to come back, but they're still not groomin' themselves the way they used to. The thing that hurt Fuller Products is that the people who should sell can get on relief.
You got to convince them the government is not their brother's keeper. The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt hurt us. He was a rich man's son. All he received was given to him. So he thinks it's right to give. He didn't understand, when you give people, you hurt them. We had soup lines and the Depression because men lost confidence in themselves. President Hoover told the American people that prosperity was around the corner. But you had to go around the corner to get it. They didn't want to go around the corner, so they elected Mr. Roosevelt.
A dog you feed will not hunt. If you want a dog that hunts, you have to let him get hungry. If you want a man to search, man needs to face the recesses of life. You're free to eat if you can pay for your food, and you are free to starve if you don't get the equivalent to pay for it.
It's contrary to the law of nature for man to stand still. This the Negro has failed to understand. He believes that the lack of integration has kept him back. This is not true. The lack of initiative is responsible.
Dr. Martin Luther King thought civil rights legislation gonna solve the black man's dilemma. I knew better. I talked with Dr. King when we boycott the Montgomery bus line. I told him the thing we need to do is go down there and buy the bus line. Then we ride where we choose because it's our bus line. He didn't want that.
Ignorance is the root of misfortune. Gandhi was highly educated from Oxford. Dr. King had his Ph.D. Andrew Carnegie came here, an immigrant, without any formal education, and died worth $300 million. There's a difference between ignorance and illiteracy. You can be an illiterate man and not be ignorant, and you can be ignorant and not illiterate.
My mother, she was born a slave, she knew that and she pointed it out to me. "Your are my first-born and I want to tell you the truth." She told me that white people feared black folks because they didn't understand them. She wanted her first-born to make a place in this world for himself and to help everybody else. "They are not going to have a mother like you and you owe them a debt. You will know something they don't know."