S. B. Fuller: Master of Enterprise

A Great Businessman is Remembered

By Elizabeth Wright

[Reprinted from Issues & Views Winter 1989]

He preached economic independence and he lived it. As in the case of many great people, his death was quietly reported in the news media. There was no fanfare and little editorial comment. Yet there is no doubt that the life of S. B. Fuller will stand out as a remarkable achievement, not only in the annals of black history, but as part of the history of free enterprise. When he died on October 27, 1988, at age 83, he left behind a legacy that once included a vast business network, created and expanded by him during the very worst days of Jim Crow bigotry.

Raised in poverty in Louisiana, the young Fuller began work as a door-to-door salesman. With only a sixth grade education, he possessed a drive and a belief in his abilities which subdued virtually every obstacle placed in his path by racial discrimination. Fuller parlayed his innate intelligence and organizing skill into a multimillion dollar conglomerate of companies throughout the United States. He became a leader in the sales of cosmetics, starting his first cosmetics firm, the Fuller Products Company, in 1935, with $25. He ultimately owned or controlled eight other corporations, which included the Courier newspaper chain [with papers in Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York and Detroit], a Chicago department store, and a New York real estate trust.

Only the strange, ironic twistings and turnings of events unique to the American black experience could find a man like Fuller ostracized by his own people. Not content with the malicious wars waged against Fuller's businesses throughout the years by the Ku Klux Klan and White Citizens Councils in the South, prominent blacks were to publicly condemn and shun him, and urge others to do the same. Branded in the 1960s as an "Uncle Tom" (and sometimes with worse epithets) by the leading luminaries of the civil rights establishment, Fuller's companies were boycotted by the black masses.

Fuller's sin? He had refused to follow the civil rights "party line" as dictated by the reigning black and white notables of the day. For this heretical behavior, he incurred public censure at the hands of a powerful clique.

In 1963, in a speech delivered to the National Association of Manufacturers (of which he was the first black member), Fuller stated that blacks would achieve success and prosperity if they worked harder and attained good educations, and showed more initiative in business enterprise. Fuller claimed that, even more than racial barriers, it was a "lack of understanding of the capitalist system" that kept blacks from making economic progress. In an interview later that year, Fuller claimed that when blacks finally concentrate on developing themselves so that they excel in what they do, they will then find that they have no real problems. He claimed that blacks were left behind economically because "they have nothing to sell."

These remarks were to earn him the enmity of a leadership intent on emphasizing the futility of black effort in an "oppressive racist society." This super successful businessman, speaking as forcefully and eloquently as he did, was a bitter pill to these advocates of government custodianship, and a threat to their philosophy of black helplessness.

"To say that Fuller was a dynamic person is something of an understatement. He certainly added greatly to my understanding of the full problem facing black people in the United States." These are the comments of Vincent Baker, newspaper columnist, community activist, former politician, businessman, and everybody's favorite raconteur. A virtual legend in his own time.

A fixture in Harlem for over a half century, Baker is affectionately known as the man with the steel-trap memory. For once Vincent Baker learns a fact, it's there to stay and stay. Now 69, he is not only sharp and intelligent, but blessed with a special wit. He is jovial and loves to share his reminiscences, which include his participation in some of the most significant events of our era and encounters with some of its most outstanding figures. Although serious when discussing politics, history or current events, he enjoys spicing his commentaries with amusing anecdotes.

"I first met S. B. Fuller in 1951," Baker says. "The year before, I had begun work as a salesman for a branch of Fuller Products Company here in Harlem. I had just finished an unsuccessful run for the State Assembly and was hundreds of dollars in debt. I tell people, not entirely facetiously, that one reason I became a Fuller door-to-door salesman was that the work was such that I could leave home before my creditors got up in the morning, and get back after they had gone home at night." So, Baker joined the Fuller Products Company and paid off his political debts.

This was to be Baker's first job in Fuller's vast network of business enterprises. In 1956, Fuller expanded his ownership of newspapers and bought the venerable New York Age, at that time the country's oldest black newspaper still publishing. He then asked Vincent Baker to join the staff as a feature writer.

"I had done some writing for the Global News Service, which syndicated columns to black newspapers," Baker explains. "Mr. Fuller learned of my activities with the 'Modern Trends' group at the Harlem YMCA [a social action group], and also knew of my political and civic involvements. So I went to work for the New York Age in 1957."

When asked what he believed motivated S. B. Fuller to such spectacular success, Baker responds, "Well, he once told me that at a point in his life, as a young man, after he had married and had several children, he awoke to the realization that he had a number of mouths to feed, and was not doing an especially good job at it. Not that he underplayed the reality of discrimination against blacks, but he decided, discrimination or no discrimination, he had to make a better living than he was doing. And he came to believe that ultimately a major weapon in the fight against discrimination was self-help--a refusal to remain dependent forever on other people for your own sustenance. He regarded dependence on others as little better than updated slavery."

And what does Baker think about the consequences of those infamous remarks made by S.B. Fuller to that NAB convention in 1963? "Well, although Fuller may not have emphasized fully the extent of racial discrimination in that speech, and may have oversimplified some things, he was right in his notion that when someone has something to sell, he has greater bargaining power. If you have products and services and skills to sell, you have greater tools in the struggle to end racism. Fuller wasn't the first black to teach us this. A half century earlier, Booker T. Washington had said essentially the same thing, and we know what happened to him. It is not that we have not had prophets but, as so often happens in history, they are not listened to."

S. B. Fuller was well known for his assistance to other blacks. He opened the doors for many budding entrepreneurs, assisting them in finding capital and giving them invaluable advice and counseling. Baker says that Fuller took special delight in this. One newspaper obituary quotes Lestine Fuller, his widow, as saying that over the years her husband had helped "thousands" of people get started.

So, how did such a travesty of common sense pick up so much steam? Why did a man who should have been feted with honors by the black community throughout his productive and illustrious career become so disreputable on the basis of a few remarks?

Vincent Baker reflects. "There are a number of people in leadership positions who fear the coming of the truth, because the truth might make black people free, free of the necessity of following a false leadership. S. B. Fuller had a sharp understanding of this. He had a rich sense of humor, and one day at one of our sales meetings, he singled me out. He asked me whether Channing Tobias was considered a black leader. I answered, yes. He asked, 'What is Tobias' occupation?' I said, 'He is Senior Secretary of the National YMCA.' Fuller asked, 'Senior Secretary of what?' I answered, 'Senior Secretary for Colored Work.' Fuller asked further, 'Well, who is Senior Secretary for White Work at the National YMCA?' And I answered, 'I don't know.' Fuller quipped, 'Well, don't feel bad about it. Neither does anyone else, because whoever the Senior Secretary for White Work is, he would not be considered a leader in the greater American society.'

"Mr. Fuller often made the point that we blacks elevate people to leadership on the basis of the struggle for racial equality, whereas leadership in other communities rests with the business people, those who productively contribute to the prosperity of the group. He viewed his activities as a successful businessman as his own effective revolution, and he was determined to show the way to others.

"The outrage against Fuller's words that blacks should exert their efforts to become economically independent is evidence of the wedding of this dependency concept with the civil rights concept. We tend to confuse dependency with civil rights. Fuller used to talk about blacks standing before the white man with 'a handful of gimmes and a mouthful of much obliged.' He wanted to see blacks free themselves from this endless begging."

Although the persistent hectoring of his businesses did compel Fuller to declare bankruptcy, this by no means undermined his vast enterprise. In a revamping, numbers of Fuller Product Company branches were transformed into proprietorships owned outright by the managers. These new owners continued to purchase their products from Fuller's main plant in Chicago. The great entrepreneur's finances remained solvent and he died a prosperous man.

S.B. Fuller's speech delivered to the National Association of Manufacturers, 1963.