Since his arrival on campus in 2011, Wichita State University history professor Robert Weems, Jr. has been busy researching the history of African-American businesses in Wichita.
Weems, a Chicago native, has a longstanding interest in this area.
A HISTORY LOST
“In general we know African-American history continues to be one of the more underreported areas of historical inquiry,” says Weems. “But we look at the economic and business dynamic of the African-American experience, that’s especially underreported.”
Weems says he became more aware of the lack of documentation while researching the history of African-American insurance companies in Chicago.
“I discovered that as late as the 1960s, there were more than 50 viable black insurers in the United States,” says Weems. “Today there are currently two."
Out of that rich history of the African-American experience, only four of the black insurers have had book-length studies of their histories.
In fact, Weems says, the last study is his revised dissertation that was completed in 1996.
“So literally, we’ve had this whole significant area of the African-American experience that has come and gone with barely a trace,” says Weems.
Weems is concerned about the history of African-American businesses being lost for good.
He says you see a lot of unoccupied buildings on the south-side of Chicago and similar sites in Wichita and for young people who aren’t aware of that history, all they see is empty buildings.
“They really aren’t cognizant of the history behind what appears today to be just urban blight,” he says.
THE QUINTESSENTIAL ENTREPRENEUR
Since starting on the project in Wichita, Weems has interviewed some of the historic African-American entrepreneurs in the city including architect Charles McAfee, Anderson “Gene” Jackson of Jackson Mortuary (died Sept. 9, 2012) and Robert Alford owner of a now-closed Wichita lighting business, the first African-American owned business of its kind in the United States.
Weems says this was an important business with a certain level of visibility because like McAfee, Alford generated business across the country.
But not everyone wanted to do business with them.
“When we talk about African-American businesses, one of the challenges is historically, whites have been apprehensive about doing business with African-Americans entrepreneurs,” says Weems. "But also African-Americans have been apprehensive to do business with African-Americans entrepreneurs, which has been an additional challenge that these individuals had to face.”
In his course on African-American business history at WSU, Weems makes the point that African-American entrepreneurs may represent the sort of quintessential entrepreneur.
“Above and beyond the usual risk associated with going into business,” Weems says, "black entrepreneurs have to deal with the additional burden or risk of being black in a still hostile society to a certain extent.”
And in talking to Alford, McAfee, Jackson and others, Weems says he could sense a real pride in accomplishment in overcoming obstacles in their entrepreneurial pursuits.
So far, Weems has conducted about 30 interviews and he wants to do 30 more before he’s done. He also is collecting relevant artifacts. His primary goal is to establish a database of information about African-American business history so future students and scholars can write articles and books on this subject.
Weems findings will be housed in the Ablah Library’s Special Collections at WSU.