Even before slavery was abolished, this Black man acquired wealth building a grocery empire never seen before in America

Mildred Europa Taylor July 07, 2022
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In the 1800s, before slavery was abolished, barbershop ownership was a major business idea for any Black man who wanted to acquire wealth. One out of every eight Black men considered to be wealthy owned a barbershop, with a net worth exceeding $2,000 (more than $55,000 today), according to the Cut.

Some enslaved men learned their barbering skills from their owners and those skills later gave them access to the elite or powerful White men who were among their clients as barbers.

On the back of this, people doubted Samuel T. Wilcox when he said he was going to make it in the grocery business. “I might have bought a farm and lived on my money, but I wished to show, if I could, that colored people could do something besides being barbers… Many advised me not to try and said nobody would buy groceries of a colored man,” Wilcox said of his business idea.

He proved everyone wrong as he became a grocer in 1850 and set up a high-end grocery store of a scale never seen before in America. His grocery store was located in Cincinnati, at Broadway and Fifth Street. At the time he started this venture, Wilcox had also established pickling and preserving business. His grocery business picked up because he focused on “fancy groceries that were not kept at the time.” He became known for cigars, first quality hams, liquors, all kinds of dried fruit, the best brands of sugars, fine soaps and molasses, according to the book, History of the Negro Race in America.

Wealthy people or people of high standing were his customers. It is possible that no grocer of his time in Cincinnati did so large a business as Wilcox, as pointed out by the book.

Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia around 1814, Wilcox grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, and soon became well known in the city as one of the founders of the Iron Chest Company in 1839, a financial institution that was also into real estate. Before his grocery business, Wilcox had also been a boat steward on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. He was able to save money and acquire the necessary skills in trading and keeping accounts, as stated by this report.

Those skills came in handy when he started his “Fancy & Staple Groceries” business, becoming the most successful Black entrepreneur in wholesale food distribution at the time. He started the business with $25,000 and made $100,000 to $140,000 in annual sales (more than $4.2 million now). After starting his shop in Cincinnati, Wilcox expanded to wholesale markets in New York, Boston, and Baltimore.

At the same time, he maintained a local retail trade among elite White families. Besides being a grocer and real estate mogul, he was also a hotelier, as he reportedly owned the Dumas House.

His grocery business, which made him popular, later failed largely because of “extravagant habits” and his indifferent attitude toward business. Wilcox married Louisa T. Wilson and they had a son named after him. Wilcox later died in his home after a short illness. Reports say that at the time of his death, he was the Steward of Central Pacific Railroad Company steamer named “Julia”. His estate had an estimated worth of $60,000.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: July 7, 2022


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