Book Review: Confronting the Odds

Confronting the Odds: African-American Entrepreneurship in Cleveland, Ohio.  By Bessie House-Soremekun. (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2002. xxvi, 202 pp. Paper, $21.00, ISBN 0873387341.)

In the book Confronting the Odds: African American Entrepreneurship in Cleveland, Ohio Bessie House-Soremekun looks at the African American experience in developing a business foundation in Cleveland, Ohio. Using a variety of sources including interviews, newspapers, and books, Soremekun paints both an optimistic and troubling picture of Cleveland’s African American experience in business development. The book traces the many successes and failures of African American entrepreneurs in Cleveland, while analyzing the many difficulties they faced. Soremekun relies heavily on Jesse Jackson’s analysis of the underserved economy of African Americans, Hispanics and urbanites who encompass more than sixty million people and more than $600 billion in annual earnings. The books talks about the untapped potential of those undeserved communities and how they could serve as a powerful engine for expanding African Americans entrepreneurial success. The book begins with an interesting history of the African American experience in Cleveland followed by a look at the many business opportunities and difficulties facing African Americans as they engaged in commercial endeavors.

Reading almost like an urban study buttressed with personal anecdotes, one gains an understanding of the significance of African Americans to Cleveland’s past. The author looks at numerous people who have helped shape the way African Americans came together to develop an economic foundation. One of the key figures in the success of African Americans business was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. This piece of legislation opened the door to African Americans offering them new opportunities to expand their base and find new markets. With the end of legal discrimination and the advent of affirmative action African American men and were given a seat at the table when prizes were meted out. Also of significance was Executive Order 11246, which gave the federal government the authority to challenge employment discrimination. One of the most important parts of this legislation was that it required those who received federal contracts of $50,000 or more had to develop an affirmative action policy, not to discriminate when employing and utilize an affirmative action policy to recruit women and minorities.

This legislation had a duel impact. It increased the disposable income of African Americans and also dramatically increased their political power. There was a corresponding increase in the number of minorities who entered politics. The result of this found African American political an economic influence was the election of Carl Stokes as Mayor of Cleveland in 1967. This was a watershed event because it placed a minority in the role of dispenser of gifts. Working primarily through the Twenty-First District Democratic Caucus, African Americans were able to establish an independent political movement which eventually transformed the Democratic Party in Cleveland and opened a large share of the government pie to African Americans. This organization allowed the African American community to centralize its power and expand its market opportunities.

There were several factors blocking the expansion of the economic opportunities for African Americans. One of the most significance factors in limiting the entrepreneurial foundations was the low level of educational development and the serious income gap many African American families had. As the economy expanded and more people gained opportunities the economic development and entrepreneurial expansion was somewhat one-sided benefiting selected African Americans. People like George Forbes and others recognized this and pressed for more real opportunities for African Americans.

The most compelling part of the book was the many stories of African Americans who found business success in Cleveland. The book is a good read offering some valuable insights into the entrepreneurial past in Cleveland. With the exception of the stories there is not a whole lot that is new, however, the book puts the story into perspective. I would recommend this book for anyone interested in understanding the role of African American entrepreneurs in Cleveland.

Dr. Abel L. Bartley
Clemson University