In its November 1949 issue Fortune magazine did a lengthy article profiling several of New Orleans’ ‘Negro’ businessmen. Each of the seven men interviewed for the article demonstrated incredible drive, tenacity, and business acumen. While most of the cities’ estimated 3,100 Negro businesses catered almost exclusively to people of color, there were a growing number of businessmen who had built clienteles across the color line. These men had solid reputations and gained the confidence of the city’s leading blacks and whites.
Presented as arguably the most successful Negro businessman in New Orleans was Joe Bartholomew. He was born Joseph Manuel Bartholomew on 1 August 1888 to Louis M. Bartholomew and Alice Lindoff. He started as a caddy to many of the city’s men of note who were also golfers. He soon learned the game of golf well enough to give private lessons and to design golf courses. He designed and landscaped the Audubon Park, City Park, and Metairie County Club courses, all during a time when they were closed to men of his race. Ever an innovative thinker, Bartholomew built a private nine-hole course in Jefferson Parish where he and his friends could play. As a result of lending his dirt-hauling equipment and other machinery to contractors around town, Bartholomew mastered by observation the contracting business. He focused primarily on drainage, foundation, and landscaping work. Among his major projects were the repaving of Tulane Avenue, stonework at Charity Hospital, the Johns-Manville plant, and work for Higgins Shipyards. His contracting skills, particularly drainage and foundation work, were quickly parlayed into real estate. He drained and leveled scores upon scores of lots which he either sold or upon which he built homes which he rented. Like so many other successful Negro businessmen, Bartholomew invested into the life insurance industry, becoming president in 1940 of the Douglas Life Insurance Company. At the time of the Fortune magazine article, Bartholomew was estimated to be worth a half-million dollars. With his wife, the former Ruth Segue, Bartholomew had twin daughters, Mrs. Leontine DeMar and Mrs. Ruth Creech, and one son, Joseph M. Bartholomew, Jr. He died on 12 October 1971. The golf course in the Pontchartrain Park subdivision which he designed is named in his honor.
Found to be even more energetic than Bartholomew was Adam Ray Haydel. Haydel was born on 7 April 1907 to Victorin and Mary Marine Haydel. He was born in rural Saint John the Baptist Parish, where his old and industrious forebears were engaged in planting. It was in his early years on his family’s homeplace that he began tinkering with machinery. After migrating to New Orleans, he worked for a white wrecker for a time, before entering into business for himself in 1935. He bought an entire block on Poydras Street, where he established American Auto Wreckers. He acquired another lot on Gentilly Boulevard, which he dubbed Crescent Wrecking. By the 1940s, Haydel’s operation had become one of the largest and most successful wrecking and salvage businesses in the country. Like almost all of the other leading businessmen, he acquired countless real estate holdings (Majestic Oaks, Corinne Park, Haydel Manor) and ventured into contracting. Among his most celebrated projects was The Pentagon, a three-story multi-use building he built in the Seventh Ward. The Pentagon included what was then one of the finest event halls in the South for Negroes. He also opened Le Rendezvous, a plush restaurant and nightclub. In 1947, he began the Majestic Insurance Company, which he soon expanded with his younger brother, James V. Haydel, to include the Majestic Mortuary. He also owned Resthaven Cemetery. Adam Ray Haydel, Sr. died in September 1981. He had five children: Adam Haydel, Jr., Mrs. Theresa Roques, Mrs. Rosemary Gueringer, Mrs. Thelma Hart, and Mrs. Cecilia Robert.
Adam was just one of many well-known Haydels among the city’s black business leaders. Belmont Felician Haydel owned one of the city’s finest florist shops at 3730 South Claiborne Avenue. The Haydel Flower Shoppe was started after Belmont spent eleven years at the New Orleans Wholesale Florist and Supply Company. He had first become interested with plants on the same Haydel property upriver, where like his cousin Adam, he was born on 9 June 1906. His parents were Elphége Haydel and Rose Josephine Honoré. By 1949, Belmont had a regular clientele of over 3,000 as well as a first-rate shop, two greenhouses, a storehouse, and modern cold vault. Haydel began in 1934 with a $150 investment. He later was active in real estate, founding Time Realty, Inc. and the Pioneer Development Corporation. He died on 4 August 1978. Together with his wife, the former Elmira Helen Brown, he had two sons, Dr. Belmont F. Haydel, Jr. and Byron Haydel.
George Graham McDemmond, a social worker, entered business in 1940 with the goal of helping and inspiring his people. He knew as he said, that his people would do two things, “eat and play.” With a modest initial investment, he began Community Essentials in 1940. McDemmond’s company manufactured potato chips, skins, and peanut butter wafers. His mainstay, his “Ole N’Awlins” potato chips were distributed as far away as New York and South America. Fully fifteen percent of his revenue came from sales to white retailers. McDemmond’s success was not without some setbacks – he suffered from the effects of expanding too rapidly. He opened plants in Detroit and Chicago after serving in World War II. He soon decided to streamline his operation and focus his efforts on his New Orleans business. Sadly, McDemmond’s life and successful business career were cut short when he was accidentally shot on 31 July 1954. He married Marie Valentine Prudeaux and had one daughter, Dr. Marie Valentine McDemmond.
The other men engaged directly in entrepreneurial pursuits, but Dave August Dennis entered into business by way of being a leader in organized labor. Dennis was born on 9 September 1910 in Saint Bernard Parish. Early in his career, Dennis, a man of imposing physique, ran a restaurant and bar as well as a pressing shop. These pursuits proved to be too mundane for a man of kingly girth and he sought election to the presidency of the Local 1419 of the International Longshoreman’s Association. Local 1419 represented the interest of nearly 4,000 men engaged in riverfront work. Under the adept leadership of Dennis, “the Local’s” assets grew to a half-million dollars in liquid and tangible holdings. During his several terms in office, Dennis established a funeral home and insurance company, in the latter of which, each member of the Local had a $1,000 policy paid for by the union. In 1949, Dennis noted with a supreme degree of confidence his ambitions to establish a supermarket, housing project, and eventually a holding company, all accruing to the interests of Local 1419. He later left union work to enter the Baptist ministry. With his wife, the former Emma Holmes, he had two children, Louis Dennis and Mrs. Dorothy Banks. Reverend Dennis died on 11 December 1976.
The “white gold” of Louisiana was its sugar cane and in Saint John the Baptist Parish near the town of Edgard, the Dinvauts reigned as kings in the harvesting of sugar cane and rice. The patriarch of the family, Fernand Nicholas Dinvaut (20 March 1882-12 September 1970) and his wife, Alice Moll, had a large family of twelve children. Three sons of “F. N.” as he was called, Newton Theophile, Rupert Jerome, and Ferdinand Nicholas, Jr., all followed their father in managing the family’s business interests. F. N.’s father had been worked on the riverboats and owned a successful general store. F. N. likewise owned and operated a large store, noted for its modern appointments and wide range of goods. Newton owned a smaller store downriver from his father’s, where he had attached to it a popular bar and dancehall called the Thunderbolt Inn. Newton, Rupert, and Ferdinand, Jr. also assisted in overseeing the family’s more than five hundred acres in rice and cane, as well as upwards of 1000 more which they rented for cultivation as well. Rupert expanded the family’s interest into the trucking business and eventually dominated the hauling business for other local planters.
The patriarch of the Negro business community in New Orleans was James Pitt Kellogg Lewis, born on 31 March 1866, just after the Civil War. Known simply as James Lewis, Jr., he had an impressive name and patrician bearing in keeping with his family history. He was the son of Colonel James Lewis, Sr., a leader in Republican Party politics, city official, and fraternal and civic leader of national reputation. His mother, Josephine Joubert, was likewise a woman of distinguished ancestry and high culture. James Lewis, Jr. began his professional career as a stenographer with the firm of Harry L. Laws and Company, a prominent sugar brokerage. He quickly rose to positions as cashier and ultimately directed over three million dollars in loans and investments, all the while as he proudly noted, without being bonded. After fifty-five years at Laws, he retired in 1941. For his last six years at the firm, he also served as president of the Peoples Industrial Life Insurance Company, which was founded by his friend, Walter L. Cohen. Cohen and Lewis both were dominant figures in Republican politics. All the while Lewis was engaged at Laws and with Peoples, he built a valuable portfolio of investments in companies like General Electric, General Motors, Standard Brands, and United Fruit as well as municipal bonds. Lewis was estimated to be worth $500,000. He was known for his philanthropy and gave readily to his church, Saint James A.M.E., the Boy Scouts, and a variety of institutions dealing with education. He died on 30 November 1950 in his stately old home on Canal Street, at the age of eighty-three.
In addition to sharing the stories of their success in business, these prosperous businessmen also shared some of the common-sense principles which guided them in their careers. Adam Haydel perhaps best summed up their common attitude about their clients: “Service first all the time. Price second. Don’t rob a man if you got it – don’t rob him. The people are the boss, they got the money.” Joe Bartholomew, again arguably the most successful black businessman in the city, emphasized the need to take chances when he noted, “The difference between me and most colored people [is] they won’t take a chance because they been skinned before. I take ‘em all the time.” While encouraging risk-taking, Bartholomew also cautioned others, “Feel your way slowly but surely. Jump at the good opportunity, but always keep an eye on the dollar after the one that looks easiest to grab.”
Success in business may have gained many of these men white clients and the regard of some white leaders, but it did not completely insulate them from prejudice. George McDemmond shared that from time-to-time he received phone calls from angry whites to the effect that, “You s.o.b., you’re in a white man’s business, get out.” He readily contends, “The fact that I’m a Negro is purely coincidental. But the only way a Negro can be sure of being called ‘Mister’ is by having money.” Belmont Haydel, ever race-conscious, matter-of-factly mentioned, “If they call me by my first name, then I do the same. I don’t care who they are.” In those post-World War II years when many blacks were migrating to points North and West, the veteran businessman James Lewis shared his observation: “I don’t think business opportunities are as good in Chicago. Northerners are cold – cold and sharp. Let me tell you about Southern people. You can get your program over with them. They’ll help you if you help yourself.”
The general findings of the survey by Fortune identified three needs which existed in the Negro business community at the time: 1) More opportunities for business education 2) Black-owned banks and lenders and 3) Greater cooperation among segments and factions of black New Orleanians
The ideas of self-reliance, integrity, and charisma which were common among all these men helped them to build immensely successful businesses despite living and working in the oppressive system of Jim Crow. Their success should be an inspiration to successive generations of entrepreneurs.
Sources: Fortune XXXX (November 1949), 112; Various Federal Censuses & Obituaries which appeared in The Times-Picayune.