ABILENE, Texas (KTAB/KRBC) – The history of most cities can be charted by the people who settled down and began to build an economic base. From there, prosperity abounds until a community is formed. But for every story of success, you can likely find a story of potential squandered. Would-be businesspeople of the past kept from their success by the cultural ideals of their time, and the color of their skin.
“Sometimes you drive. I drive around the city and you see homes and you wonder, ‘who lives in that home, and how did they get there?’ As you research, you find that in some of those cases, the wealth may have come from 100 years ago,” said Floyd Miller, Abilene businessman and Vice President of the Abilene Black Chamber of Commerce.
Miller came to Abilene in 1972. He was the first person of color hired by an Eli Lilly based company here in Abilene. Though that title may have escaped him, had the circumstance of his time been different.
“It wasn’t that men and women before me could not have done that, it was just that they never had the opportunity,” Miller explained.
Out of this necessity for representation, the Abilene Black Chamber of Commerce was formed in 1975. John E. McCowan, Thomas H. Mays, and Robert English established the chamber to open doors once locked to people of color.
Miller continued, “The Abilene Chamber of commerce [at that time], was not really a friendly place.”
People of color in the 1970s were not lacking an ounce of potential, as according to Miller, but were in dire need of the opportunity to succeed.
In 1975, then member of Abilene’s Black Chamber of Commerce, John Thomas, was quoted in Abilene Christian College’s newspaper, The Optimist:
“[Sic] There are qualified blacks in the community, but they are lacking in areas of finance, support, recognition and the opportunity to achieve. The opportunity has always been there, we just have not been allowed the privilege to enjoy it.”
43 years later, the mission has not changed, said Black Chamber Marketing and Advertising director, Andre Gwinn Sr.
“Representation for the minority community is what we fight for to this very day in the City of Abilene,” Gwinn encouraged.
Whether it’s through loans, networking, or simply the opportunity to achieve, the Abilene Black Chamber of Commerce has helped hundreds of thousands of people of color start their businesses and get the snowball of wealth started in their community – where it had been rolling in others for hundreds of years.
“It’s your opportunity to create a legacy for yourself; to leave a name behind, a legacy behind, that will outlive you and be passed down through generations and generations,” avowed Gwinn.
Gwinn included that some things have changed for the better, “The Abilene Chamber of Commerce and Abilene Black Chamber of Commerce have a great working relationship.”
Even though things are much better today, the fight is no less necessary. Miller reflected on the growth he has seen in Abilene since the 1970s, saying there is still work to be done.
“I think there is a pretty good percent of people that want to move forward, but there are a few that do not… They use these code words like ‘woke.’ I think if you’re awake, you are aware of what’s going on,” Miller examined.
The businesses and dreamers of the past have certainly paved the way for entrepreneurs and business owners of today, building their generational wealth and leaving a better legacy behind for the Abilenians and Americans of the future.
“I think it was Dr. King who said something to the effect; it’s an insult to ask a bootless man to pull himself up by his bootstraps,” added Miller.