The spirit of Black entrepreneurship and leadership has long thrived in Chicago, leaving an indelible mark on our city — and the world. As we begin Black History Month, here are five Black people whose contributions have shaped our city’s economic history.
Binga began his career in Chicago as a barber in 1893 and he eventually found his passion revitalizing rundown properties, which provided housing for African Americans who were migrating from the South in search of better opportunities and escape from Jim Crow laws. Binga began the city’s first privately owned African-American bank, the Binga State Bank, in 1921. This bank provided the African-American community with an alternative to large white-owned banks, which often discriminated against them. The bank was located at 35th and State, and is now the IIT Research Institute.
John H. Johnson
Johnson began his career with a $500 loan and went on to found the Johnson Publishing Company in 1942, putting out magazines including Ebony and Jet. These magazines provided platforms for African Americans to see themselves represented positively in media at a time when mainstream publications often ignored or misrepresented them. He was the first African American to appear on the Forbes 400 in 1982, and his headquarters — the Johnson Publishing Building on South Michigan Avenue — gave Chicago its only high-rise designed by a Black architect.
Overton established the Overton Hygienic Company in 1898 in Kansas City and moved it to Chicago in 1911, making it one of the earliest successful Black-owned businesses in the city. Overton’s venture specialized in cosmetics and hair care products tailored to African-American needs, which not only filled a market gap but also provided employment opportunities within the community. Overton went on to operate several businesses, including the Chicago Bee newspaper franchise. His headquarters, the beautiful Overton Hygienic Building in Bronzeville, later became the Palace Hotel and is now a Chicago landmark.
Ida B. Wells
Wells was already an established journalist when she moved to Chicago in 1893, and she’d written extensively about racial injustice throughout the South. In Chicago, Wells continued her crusade against lynching and racial violence, which underscored the economic toll these horrors took on African-American communities. Wells argued that the climate of racial terror hampered economic investment and development in black neighborhoods, limiting business opportunities and stifling economic growth. By challenging discriminatory practices and promoting equality, Wells helped create a more inclusive and economically vibrant business environment in the city.
Oprah Winfrey began her career as a news reporter and she eventually grew into a global media presence from her West Loop space, Harpo Productions. That’s where Winfrey hosted “The Oprah Winfrey Show” for over two decades and eventually became the first Black woman billionaire, according to Forbes magazine. She also founded the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa and supports education and empowerment initiatives across the world. Winfrey’s contributions have earned her many prestigious awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
These five individuals have left a legacy in Chicago’s business landscape and have helped shape the city’s cultural and economic identity. The Chicagoland Chamber wants to honor to the rich cultural heritage of our city’s African-American community, and we are committed to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in Chicagoland.