Samuel B. Fuller was born on June 4, 1905, in Monroe, Louisiana, to parents who were sharecroppers. He came from “humble beginnings,” which is a bit of an understatement. In the sixth grade, his family was so poor that Fuller had to drop out of school to help support his family. Perhaps from experiences in his community at nine years old, he had learned the value of door-to-door sales; by nine years old, Fuller was going door to door selling products.
When he was 15, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Two years later, his mother passed away, leaving Fuller in charge of his six siblings. Relief organizations came by to help, but Fuller turned them down because he did not want his neighbors to think his family could not make it without handouts. It was then that he and his siblings decided that they would make it independently without any external help.
The road to success was not for Fuller. Possibly in search of a better living than he had in Memphis, Fuller hitchhiked to Chicago in 1928. After hiking the Coal Mines trail, he found work as a coal miner. Fuller took a series of backbreaking, menial jobs before rising to become the manager of a coal yard. During the Depression, he worked as an insurance agent at the Commonwealth Burial Association, a black-owned firm. Despite having a secure position at that company, he decided to strike out and build his own business.
Using a $25 loan he obtained using his car as a security deposit (about $375 in 2019 money), he started his own business. With his future wife, Lestine Thornton, he purchased a soap loaf with this money, selling it door to door. He was so successful in this endeavor that he invested another $1,000 in the enterprise. His customer base was largely newly arrived black families on the South Side of Chicago, who had come as part of the Black Migration. The movement of 6 million African Americans out of the rural Southern United States to the urban Northeast, Midwest, and West occurred between 1916 and 1970. Within this underserved community, Fuller saw a potential gold mine. He was promoted to manager at Commonwealth while growing his own business to include 30 products and other salespeople.
In 1939, Fuller opened his factory. In 1947, he saved his supplier from going under by purchasing it and used his newly acquired capital to sell everything under the sun, from deodorant to suits. He bought black newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier and the African-American weekly newspaper published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that operated from 1907 until October 22, 1966. The New York Age was a weekly newspaper established in 1887. It was widely considered one of the most prominent Black newspapers of its time. In Chicago, his footprint loomed large, especially after purchasing the Chicago Regal Theater, a nightclub and music venue popular among African Americans. The Regal was a significant complex that featured films, dance, music, and comedy. And the South Center Department Store.
Black Republicans were a thing in the days before President Lyndon Baines Johnson. And chief among them was Samuel B. Fuller. Fuller was a black American entrepreneur in the mid-Century United States. More than just an entrepreneur, he also gave back to the black community by providing both inspirational speeches and nuts-and-bolts training when the years between 1900 and 1930 are known as “the Golden Age of Black Entrepreneurship” had precious few options. Some entrepreneurs trained or inspired by Fuller include John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing and George Ellis Johnson of Johnson Products.
Fuller was a staunch Republican, albeit a bit of an anachronistic one and with a strong independent streak about him. He was the head of the Chicago South Side NAACP. At the height of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Fuller had a novel and innovative solution: Fuller knew that the bus company was hemorrhaging money due to the boycott and other factors. He proposed winning the boycott by buying the bus line and integrating it. Fuller’s philosophy was that capitalism would end segregation and discrimination in the South along with black achievement, not government intervention.
No one is quite sure, but it is possible that Fuller was the wealthiest black American throughout the 1950s. His cosmetics company alone brought in $18 million annually in 1950 dollars (over $170 million in 2019 dollars). His sales team included over 5,000 members, a third of whom were white. He became the first black man inducted into the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) in 1963. In 1963, he delivered a speech to the NAM, and Fuller stated that blacks would achieve success and prosperity if they worked harder, attained good educations, and showed more initiative in business enterprise. Fuller claimed that even more than racial barriers, it was a “lack of understanding of the capitalist system” that kept blacks from making economic progress. In an interview later that year, Fuller claimed that black Americans would see that they have no real problems when blacks finally concentrate on self-development to excel in whatever they do. He claimed that blacks were left behind economically because “they have nothing to sell.”
He stated that “Negroes are not discriminated against because of the color of their skin; they are discriminated against because they have nothing to offer that people want to buy.” His comment at his induction ceremony, combined with an interview in U.S. News and World Report, caused some black leaders to call for a boycott of Fuller products. The boycotts were largely unsuccessful, but his reputation was quite tarnished in the black community. Fuller’s fall from grace was as stunning as his meteoric rise. Although he was the first African American to be inducted into the NAM, he insisted that a lack of faith in capitalism rather than segregation was at the root of black America’s failure to prosper.
For these believes, Mr. Full was ostracized by the civil rights movement’s leadership, which was focused on the oppression that black people were feeling at the hands of whites. In Napoleon Hill’s book, “Success with a positive mental attitude,” he quoted from Mr. Fuller what his mother told him as a young man, “the reason we are poor is not because of God. We are poor because father never developed a desire to become rich. No one in our family never developed a desire to be anything else.” Indeed, it was his zeal for unregulated capitalism that was ultimately his undoing. In 1968, he was charged with violating the Federal Securities Act after he sold unregistered promissory notes. His company went into bankruptcy in 1971. There was some upward motion after this, but Fuller Products never attained its previous levels of success. Within ten years, the company would file for bankruptcy, and Fuller would be shunned by other black leaders and advocates for social change. In 1976, Fuller retired due to health problems. In 1988, he died due to kidney failure. His widow estimated that he helped thousands of people to get their start in business.
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