Gratifying news: More blacks are starting small businesses

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"Nationally, the number of black businesses grew 45 percent, to 1.2 million, from 1997 to 2002, the period studied by the U.S. Census Bureau. The total number of businesses nationally increased 10.4 percent during the same period." .

This is interesting and gratifying news. For many years, the number of businesses owned by blacks has been very small. This is perhaps not surprising, given the historical experience of American blacks: Slavery and sharecropping fostered dependence and exclusion from the market economy. Martin Luther King Jr. once met a black man in the Deep South who had never handled U.S. currency.

These census figures look like a major change from historical experience. The Post treats this as a local rather than a national story, for the good reason that Prince George's County, Md., adjacent to and larger in population than the District of Columbia, has the nation's fourth-largest number of black-owned businesses, after Cook County, Ill., Los Angeles County, Calif., and Kings County (Brooklyn), N.Y. The Post's local reporting adds interesting texture to the national story.

Often, the owners are young retirees in their late 40s or early 50s who have worked for the federal government or large corporations. They then start consultancies or home-based businesses as second-half careers, said Mike Little, co-founder of the Prince George's Black Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the national black chamber.

Patricia Davis started her financial literacy training business from her home in Mitchellville, Md., three years ago, after the bank she worked for was headed for another merger. Davis had spent decades as a senior corporate executive in several banks and money services firms and had been through several corporate acquisitions. During that time, she'd often volunteer to teach people how to manage their money.

"I was ready to go out and follow my passion," she said of her decision to launch Davis Financial Services in Mitchellville. Leonard Wood and his partner, Vernon Woodland, began their cable marketing company from a Prince George's apartment last year after quitting their jobs at a large marketing company. Both had worked as supervisors, overseeing a crew that went door to door promoting cable service.

"We were basically running someone else's company," Wood said, and asked, "Why don't we do this for ourselves?" "I made one guy $1 million one year. I'm married with kids. It was just about wanting to be more than average."

Wood and Woodland called the IRS and got a federal tax ID number, then requested the Trinity Communications Corp. as the company name and set up a bank account. Then they bought an insurance policy. It all cost a few thousand dollars from their savings accounts. "We stepped out on faith," Wood said.

In The New Americans: How the Melting Pot Can Work Again (2001), I compared the experiences of Irish Americans 100 years ago and black Americans today and noted that there were very low rates of entrepreneurialism among both groups. The experience of living as disfavored people in a caste system did not foster habits of mind conducive to entrepreneurial participation in the marketplace. In time, this changed for the Irish, and now it seems to be changing for blacks, too.

I'm trying to figure out a political angle on this. Will this growing entrepreneurialism have an effect on voting habits? Blacks have been more likely than other Americans to work in the public sector, which perhaps is one reason why they're so much more likely than others to vote Democratic. Maybe this trend will move a few toward the Republicans. But it's a heartening trend, whatever the political effect and whatever your leanings. Opportunity is out there, and more people are seeking it.