Commentary: Remembering businessman Earl Graves Sr.

Commentary: Remembering businessman Earl Graves Sr.

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Earl G. Graves, Sr. attends the United Negro College Fund 65th Anniversary dinner at Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on March 5, 2009 in New York City.

Earl G. Graves, Sr. attends the United Negro College Fund 65th Anniversary dinner at Sheraton New York Hotel & Towers on March 5, 2009 in New York City. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images/TNS)

The death of entrepreneur Earl G. Graves Sr., founder of Black Enterprise magazine, represents the passing of another cultural canon. Like the horn players John Coltrane and Miles Davis in the creative world, he gifted us with the authoritative principles, the norms and tenets for black business owners.

A graduate of Morgan State University, Graves hungered for a contrarian transformation of black American culture that would honor and encourage those who dared to launch their own enterprises. After its founding in 1970, Black Enterprise became the principal promulgator of black business, composing its own listing of the largest African American companies in the country, the "BE 100s." It also expanded black consciousness - as in "I can run any business."

And plenty of entrepreneurs and business executives rose through the ranks during that time. Kenneth C. Frazier, chairman and CEO of Merck & Co.; Stanley O'Neal, former Merrill Lynch CEO and chairman; Kenneth Chenault, former CEO and chairman of American Express; Walter E. Massey, former Bank of America chairman; Dick Parsons, former CEO and chairman of AOL Time Warner; and Franklin Raines, former chairman and CEO of Fannie Mae. There are dozens more I could add to this list.

Graves faced no competition when he launched his publication. The magazine with the highest global circulation for African Americans, Ebony, highlighted professionals and athletes living in luxurious homes and focused on fashion, entertainment and sports. The year Black Enterprise was founded, Ebony's June cover story headlined, "Baseball's 100,000 a Year Superstars." The previous issue in May, showcasing four top models on the cover, asked "Have Black Models Really Made It?"

The other groundbreaking black publication of the time was Essence, also launched in 1970 by a friend of Graves, Ed Lewis, and focused on an entirely different target market - African American women. As one whom he befriended, I must say that what distinguished him is not as important as what nourished him. "Like the genius," wrote the French writer Andre Malraux, "the individual is valuable for what there is within."

We first met at Brown University, where his son attended and I was an English Department faculty member. The canon part, as I learned in our long friendship, extended to channels that involved a patented devotion to fatherhood, and exercising the essence of what real friendship is. He and his wife Barbara would drive from New York to Providence, R.I., to see his son (Earl Jr. from Harvard) duel in a Brown vs. Harvard basketball game. Standing up with eyes glazing, he shook his rattle with a deafening cling after a remarkable play.

Another time, before the two teams battled on the football field, he would drag me to the supermarket and buy tons of provisions for the tailgating party. What kind of cheese did I like? When Johnny moved into a new dormitory room, it was Earl dragging me again - this time to the market across the street where he bought a mop and cleaning supplies because he said that the room was too dirty for his son.

Accused often of being pompous and pushy by both critics and some friends, he demonstrated the value of being forceful when I needed him. My daughter was in danger of being suspended from Hampton University because of her dormitory behavior. By telephone, I shared my concerns with Graves. He was adamant about my needing to meet with the president. "I'll call down there and grease the skids for you," he offered. The rest is personal and professional history.

When I arrived at Hampton, I met with William Harvey, the president, who made it clear that Graves had said, "You're a great guy." He told me to return after my meetings with the deans. Later, when I sat in his living room while holding a cocktail and chatting about writing programs, he said, "Would you like to teach here?"

Of course. I would be closer to my daughter. I would leave Providence, where I had become terribly lonely since most of my friends and associates had left town. That's how I became a faculty member at Hampton University - thanks to Earl Graves - after 17 years at Brown.

He didn't need to do that. But that is the difference between a maestro who has canonical influence in their principle undertaking, and one whose norms and tenets are enlarged further - considered breathtaking by those who observe the real person behind the stage.



Barry E. Beckham ( is president of Beckham Publications, the author of three novels and a retired English professor.

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