Chicago’s black business leaders play major role in Obama’s rise

By Carol Eisenberg

May 28, 2008 at 8:15am

Oprah Winfrey lives here. Michael Jordan keeps a penthouse on the lake. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Sr. are both here. And of course, there’s Barack Obama.

To a degree unlike any other city in America, Chicago is identified with its black elite. Locals joke that you can find more black millionaires per square foot at the Chicago Urban League’s annual dinner than you can anywhere in the world.

The windy city is home not just to Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and Chess Records, where Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry and Howlin’ Wolf recorded hits, but also to Winfrey’s wildly successful Harpo Productions, and to Ebony and Jet, the flagships of Johnson Publishing Company, the world’s largest African-American-owned firm.

The city has its share of black poverty, to be sure. But it is also headquarters to Seaway National Bank, the Midwest’s largest black-owned bank, and a slew of flourishing African-American-owned financial and consulting firms, including John W. Rogers Jr.’s Ariel Capital, manager of some of the nation’s largest pension funds; Loop Capital, a fast-growing investment banking firm co-founded by James Reynold Jr.; and Burrell Communications Group, where founder Tom Burrell snagged accounts with Pepsi Cola and McDonald’s and revolutionized the portrayal of blacks in advertising.

It is no coincidence that Chicago has also spawned three of the four black presidential candidates in U.S. history - Jesse Jackson Sr., Carol Moseley Braun and now Barack Obama. Politics, after all, requires money – lots of it.

Obama’s ties to Chicago’s black elite go back to his earliest days in Hyde Park, an integrated neighborhood that is home to the University of Chicago, the Chicago Theological Seminary and affluent as well as struggling residents.

Only two years after his crushing 2000 defeat to Bobby Rush, a charismatic South Side congressman who had once led the Illinois Black Panthers, Obama asked his friend and neighbor, Martin Nesbitt, to invite a group of African-American professionals to his home for brunch.

Nesbitt, a vice president of the Pritzker Realty Group and president of a parking management company, was a true believer in his friend’s political future. Yet even he was stunned when Obama told the group he wanted to mount a run for U.S. Senate, according to David Mandell’s account in “Obama: From Promise to Power.”

“I literally fell off the couch,” Nesbitt said. “And we all started laughing - and he said, ‘No, really, I am gonna run for the U.S. Senate.”

Robert Blackwell Jr., owner of an IT consulting company, told the Washington Post it would have been natural to hesitate. “But Barack has almost devout followers who are people of action, and they rallied behind him,” he said.

“Barack has almost devout followers who are people of action, and
they rallied behind him.”

~ Robert Blackwell Jr.

Blackwell already had strong business, as well as personal connections to Obama. From early 2001 to April, 2002, according to the Los Angeles Times, he had paid Obama an $8,000-a-month retainer to give advice to his firm, Electronic Knowledge Interchange. A few months after receiving his final payment from EKI, Obama sent a letter on state Senate letterhead urging Illinois officials to provide a $50,000 tourism promotion grant to another Blackwell company, Killerspin.

Another early participant was Valerie Jarrett, a veteran of Chicago politics and former chair of the Chicago Stock Exchange and the Chicago Transit authority. “You saw his resilience,” she told US News. “He has the intestinal fortitude to take a punch – and losing to Congressman Rush was a very hard punch.” Jarrett would become the finance chair of the 2004 campaign.

It is a measure of Obama’s self-confidence - and the trust placed in him by members of his inner circle - that he convinced them to open their wallets again. That group provided the political seed money for his successful 2004 race that enabled him to launch a campaign which built broader financial and political support later on.

Rogers of Ariel Capital gave $11,000. Quintin E. Primo III, who made a fortune financing commercial real-estate deals, gave $18,000. Louis A. Holland, a founding partner of Holland Capital, his wife and two of his partners, gave $35,000. Jordan, the basketball superstar (who was not at that brunch) gave $10,000.

And those same individuals would step up again when Obama declared his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for president.

Black Chicagoans like to point out that their city has always led the nation in black political leaders.

The city’s first settler was a fur trader of African and French descent - Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable who established a trading post at the mouth of the Chicago river in the 1770s and who was called “Black Chief” by the Potawatomi Indians.

Fugitive slaves and freedmen established the city’s first black community in the 1840s. But it wasn’t until the Great Migration that began around the time of World War I, when hundreds of thousands of blacks from Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee rode up on the Illinois Central Railroad that African-Americans began transforming Chicago politically, economically and culturally.

Ironically, most of the new arrivals who were seeking escape from the Jim Crow laws were confined to a narrow “Black Belt” of overcrowded apartment buildings on the South Side. But in the 1930s and 1940s, the area - dubbed Bronzeville or the Black Metropolis by community boosters – became a cultural and economic magnet.

The late John H. Johnson, who came from Arkansas in 1933, said that to southern blacks like him, Chicago was “what Mecca was to the Moslems and what Jerusalem was to the Jews: a place of magic and mirrors and dreams.”

In the early 1940s, Johnson began publishing The Negro Digest, the prototype for Ebony, and would go on to become the first African-American to appear on the Forbes 400 list.

In those same years, an African-American founded the first black insurance company in the North; Robert S. Abbott’s Chicago Defender became the nation’s most widely read black newspaper; William L. Dawson became America’s most powerful black politician and writers like Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and William Attaway rivaled those of the Harlem Renaissance.

Still, it would take African Americans several generations to begin to leverage their political muscle in a city largely controlled by white ethnics.

Edward McClelland wrote in Salon that Chicago became the political capital of black America precisely because the city was so segregated for so long. He quoted a saying once popular among blacks: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close you get, as long as you don’t get too high; in the North, he doesn’t care how high you get, as long as you don’t get too close.”

The impact of Harold Washington’s 1983 election as mayor, by a coalition of black, Hispanic and good-government types, was seismic. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father,” Obama recounted finding the mayor’s picture on the wall of a barber shop shortly after moving to the city. “Before Harold,” he quotes him, “seemed like we’d always be second-class citizens.”

Washington’s example fueled the political aspirations of others, including Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jr., Carol Moseley Braun, James Meeks and Bobby Rush on the national level, and a host of others at the state and local level. Washington had received help from the black businessmen of his time, among them, John Johnson and Edward G. Gardner, the founder of Soft Sheen Products.

More than 30 years after his death, Chicago is home to more black-owned businesses than any other city, according to the Chicago Urban League. And increasingly, its most affluent leaders are contributing to a slew of civic causes, including political campaigns.

“It’s taken a long time for black business people to accumulate enough wealth to be able to give it away,” Jarrett told Chicago Business.

Obama’s campaign for the Democratic nomination has drawn support from almost every demographic in the city. But his original backers among black business leaders are still pumping too: Rogers, Blackwell and Frank Clark, president of Commonwealth Edison, have each raised more than $200,000, according to campaign finance records.

Also among the rainmakers is Desiree Rogers, the president of Peoples Gas and North Shore Gas, who hosted a $1,000-a-person fundraiser in her Gold Coast home last January, and Mellody Hobson, president of Ariel Capital and a frequent financial commentator on ABC’s Good Morning America, who has raised at least $50,000, according to campaign reports.

But by far the largest fund-raising prowess by a black entrepreneur from Chicago took place not in that city, but in Montecito, Calif., where talk-show doyenne Winfrey threw a celebrity-studded gala which netted more than $3 million. The Chicago Tribune reported that as stars like Whoopi Goldberg and Chris Rock rubbed elbows at her estate with members of the Chicago crowd, Winfrey told her guests: “When you have been called, no one can stand in the way of destiny.”

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  • #1.   Michelle Robinson 05.28.2008

    Love this website! I stumbled across “Muckety” while searching online for an op-ed piece about Cheryle Jackson and the Chicago Urban League. The map concept is really cool. Can I get daily e-mails in my inbox?

  • #2.   David Luckett 05.29.2008

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    Born and raised Chicagoan living in Silver Spring.

  • #3.   boredwell 11.21.2008

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  • #4.   Laurie Bennett 11.21.2008

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