5-Notable African Americans in Real Estate
Fine Art and Real Estate Broker Anna D. Smith celebrates Black History Month by honoring 5-notable African Americans in Real Estate.
African American Real Estate Magnet
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery on August 15, 1818 in Mississippi. She was given the name Bridget without a surname, and was later nicknamed Biddy. She was owned by slaveholders in Georgia and South Carolina before being returned to Mississippi.
Robert Marion Smith, her last owner, was a Mississippi Mormon convert. He decided to follow the call of the church and moved his family and slaves to the West. He helped to establish a Mormon community in what would become Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time Utah was still a part of Mexico.
In 1848, Mason, then 30, walked 1,700 miles behind a 300-wagon caravan. The caravan eventually arrived in the Holladay-Cottonwood area of the Salt Lake Valley. Along the route, Mason was responsible for setting up and breaking camp; cooking the meals; herding cattle; and serving as a midwife. She also took care of her three young daughters, aged 10, 4, and a newborn.
In 1851, Smith moved his family once again. This time a 150-wagon caravan headed for San Bernardino, California. Ignoring Brigham Young’s warning that slavery was illegal in California, Smith brought Mason and other enslaved people to the new Mormon community. Along the way, Mason met Charles H. and Elizabeth Flake Rowan, a free black couple. The Rowan’s, and others, urged her to legally contest her slave status once she reached California.
Fearing that he would lose his slaves, Smith decided to move to Texas, a slave state. They were prevented from leaving by the Owens family. One of Robert Owens’ sons was romantically involved with Mason’s 17 year old daughter. Owens told the L.A. County Sheriff that slaves were being illegally held. The sheriff gathered a posse and apprehended Smith’s wagon train in Cajon Pass, California.
After spending five years enslaved in California, Mason challenged Smith for her freedom. On January 21, 1856, L.A. District Judge Benjamin Hayes approved Mason’s petition. The ruling freed Mason and thirteen members of her extended family. She took the surname Mason from the middle name of Amason Lyman, who was the mayor of San Bernardino and a Mormon Apostle.
After becoming free, Mason and her daughters moved in with Robert Owens, the father of Charles Owens and a well-known Los Angeles businessman. Her daughter Ellen would eventually marry Charles Owens. Mason worked in Los Angeles as a nurse and midwife, delivering hundreds of babies during her career.
Using her knowledge of herbal remedies, she risked her life to care for those affected by the smallpox epidemic in Los Angeles. One of her employers was the noted physician John Strother Griffin. Saving carefully, she was one of the first African American women to own land in Los Angeles.
As a businesswoman, she amassed a fortune, estimated at $3 million. Mason shared generously with charities. She also fed and sheltered the poor, and visited prisoners. She was instrumental in founding a traveler’s aid center, and a school and day care center for African American children, open to any child who had nowhere else to go. Because of her kind and giving spirit, many called her “Auntie Mason” or “Grandma Mason.”
In 1872, along with her son-in-law Charles Owens and other African American residents of Los Angeles, Mason was a founding member of First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles, the city’s first African American church. The organizing meetings were held in her home on Spring Street. She donated the land on which the church was built. She also helped to establish the first elementary school for African American children in Los Angeles.
Mason spoke fluent Spanish and was a well-known figure in Los Angeles. She dined on occasion at the home of Pio Pico, the last governor of Alta California and a wealthy Los Angeles land owner.
Mason’s daughter Ellen married Charles Owens and had two sons. For many decades, Robert Curry Owens was noted as the wealthiest Black man in Los Angeles. He went on to own the Owens Block, a two-story brick building built on Broadway in the early 1890s that became the first African American owned business building in Downtown Los Angeles.
Mason was fond of saying, “If you hold your hand closed, nothing good can come in. The open hand is blessed, for it gives in abundance, even as it receives.” After Mason’s death on January 15, 1891, she was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights. On March 27, 1988, in a ceremony attended by the mayor of Los Angeles and members of the church she founded, her burial place was marked with a gravestone.
Mason is an honoree in the California Social Work Hall of Distinction. She was also celebrated on Biddy Mason Day on November 16, 1989. A ceremony at the Broadway Spring Center unveiled a memorial to highlight her achievements.
Biddy Mason Park is near the site of Mason’s home. It is a downtown Los Angeles city park and site of an art installation describing her life. Mason is featured in a mural by Bernard Zakheim in UC Hall at the University of California, San Francisco. The painting, dating to the 1930s, is currently facing demolition along with the rest of the building as part of a campus upgrade.
African American Architect
Paul Revere Williams was born on February 18, 1894, in Los Angeles, California [https://www.paulrwilliamsproject.org/]. His parents, Chester Stanley and Lila Wright Williams were middle class Memphis residents. They migrated to Los Angeles in 1893 with their first son Chester to start a fruit business, but were unsuccessful. Paul was born shortly thereafter in Los Angeles in 1894.
In 1896 his father died from tuberculosis and his mother died two years later from tuberculosis as well. The tragic death of their parents left the boys in foster care. He was eventually adopted by C.I. Clarkson and his wife; while his brother lived with a different family. Williams was the only African American student in his elementary school.
Quickly recognizing Williams’ talents, his foster mother ensured he received a proper education. This allowed Williams to follow his dream in becoming an architect; even though there were few African American architects at the time.
His architectural aspirations remained uppermost in his thoughts. He attended the Los Angeles atelier of the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design (1913–16) and was certified as an architect in 1915. While attending (1916–19) a program for architectural engineering at the University of Southern California, he took a series of low-paying jobs at several architectural firms to learn as much as he could. During this time in 1917 he married Della Mae Givens at the First AME Church in Los Angeles, and they had three children.
He learned about landscape architecture while working with Wilbur D. Cook and got his first taste of designing on a palatial scale at the firm of Reginald D. Johnson. From 1920 to 1922 he worked for John C. Austin (with whom he later collaborated), turning his attention to designs for large public buildings.
In 1921 Williams received a license to practice architecture in California, and became the first certified African-American architect west of the Mississippi. He accepted his first commission from a white former high-school classmate, Louis Cass. A year later, at age 28, Williams founded his own business, Paul R. Williams and Associates.
In 1923, he became the first African American member of the American Institute of Architects, and was later licensed to practice in Washington, D.C. (1936), New York (1948), Tennessee (1960), and Nevada (1964).
As Williams’s reputation grew, he received commissions to design houses for such Hollywood stars as Lon Chaney, Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Anthony Quinn, Julie London, Tyrone Power, Bert Lahr, Charles Correll, Will Hays, Zasu Pitts, and Danny Thomas.
Known as an outstanding draftsman, Williams perfected the skill of rendering drawings “upside down.” This skill was developed because in the 1920s many of his white clients felt uncomfortable sitting directly next to a Black man. He learned to draft upside down so that he could sit across the desk from his clients who would see his drafts right-side-up.
Among his many remarkable buildings are the opulent Saks Fifth Avenue building in Beverly Hills and the flying saucer–shaped Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport (as codesigner). He also oversaw additions to the Beverly Hills Hotel in the 1950s. In addition to stores, public housing, hotels, and restaurants, he designed showrooms, churches, and schools.
Unlike the remarkable mansions he designed for celebrities, he also designed along with Hilyard Robinson the first federally funded public housing projects of the post-war period (Langston Terrace in Washington, D.C.) and later the Pueblo del Rio project in southeast Los Angeles.
Williams famously remarked upon the bitter irony of the fact that most of the homes he designed, and whose construction he oversaw, were on parcels whose deeds included segregation covenants barring Black people from purchasing them.
During his career, Williams designed more than 2,000 private homes, and more than 2,000 public buildings; while a number of his Works are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Here is a list of 15, of his notable public buildings:
1926 28th Street YMCA, Los Angeles
1935 Rene Faron Residence
1938 First Church of Christ, Scientist (Reno, Nevada)
1939 Saks Fifth Avenue, Beverly Hills
1940 Pueblo del Rio Housing Development (joint venture)
1948 Golden State Mutual Life Los Angeles
1949 and 1963 Perino’s Restaurant (alterations of existing buildings)
1951 Williams Residence
1953 Imperial Courts Housing Development, Los Angeles
1958 Los Angeles Superior Court
1961 LAX Theme Building (joint venture)
1961 La Concha Motel
1962 St. Jude Hospital, Memphis
1968 First AME Church, Los Angeles
1964 Beverly Sunset Medical Center Los Angeles
Williams was a thoughtful man, and left us with a legacy of quotes, essays, and books. Quote:
If I allow the fact that I am a Negro to checkmate my will to do, now, I will inevitably form the habit of being defeated.
Essay: “I Am a Negro,” American Magazine (1937), The following is a quote from that essay:
I came to realize that I was being condemned, not by lack of ability, but by my color. I passed through successive stages of bewilderment, inarticulate protest, resentment, and, finally, reconciliation to the status of my race. Eventually, however, as I grew older and thought more clearly, I found in my condition an incentive to personal accomplishment, and inspiring challenge. Without having the wish to “show them,” I developed a fierce desire to “show myself.” I wanted to vindicate every ability I had. I wanted to acquire new abilities. I wanted to prove that I, as an individual, deserved a place in the world.
Williams retired from his practice in 1973, and died from diabetes on January 23, 1980, at age 85. His funeral was held at the First AME Church he designed, and the presiding minister, Rev. Cecil Murray, was joined in the pulpit by Dr. William H.D. Hornaday, the Senior Minister of the Founder’s Church of Religious Science, that Williams also had designed. Dr. Hornaday described Williams as a gentle and courtly man of the highest integrity. Williams was interred in the Sanctuary of Radiance, Manchester Garden Mausoleum at Inglewood Park Cemetery, Inglewood.
On October 29, 2015 a monument and memorial plaza to Paul Williams was dedicated just to the north of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building as part of its recent renovation. The monument, made by artist Georgia Toliver features a 9-foot-tall bas relief of Paul Williams with many of his significant works. The bas relief is flanked with interpretive panels with a biography of Mr. Williams as well as a history of the Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company
African American Framer
Igalious “Ike” Mills grew up working his family’s farm in the Piney Woods town of Nacogdoches, Texas. His siblings still keep it running, relying on a lot of the same equipment used by their father and grandfather.
Born in 1953, Mills recalls shopping at a white-owned feed store that allowed his family to buy goods on credit until his dad got the money, oftentimes through selling bales of cotton, the farm’s primary export. The store essentially served as the family’s bank, because access to financial institutions was unheard of.
Due to biased government and private discriminatory practices, African American farmers have lost more than 12 million acres of farmland over the past century. In 1920, there were over 925,000 African American farmers in the US. However, by 1997, their numbers had fallen to just under 18,500.
Recent data suggest the USDA continues to disproportionately reject African American farmers for loans. According to a CNN analysis , 42% of African American farmers were rejected for direct USDA loans in 2021, more than any other demographic group.
Mills spends much of his energy trying to connect a dwindling number of African American farmers with state and federal programs that can help them keep their operations running. It was welcomed news when Congress passed the American Rescue Plan. Of the $10.4 billion that will support agriculture, half goes to disadvantaged farmers.
A quarter of disadvantaged farmers are African American. The money would provide debt relief as well as grants, training, education and other forms of assistance aimed at acquiring land. That was until a federal judge temporarily blocked the law going into effect.
Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is among the many white litigants challenging the law. Miller filed the suit as a private citizen. However, he is the state’s agriculture commissioner, and only exacerbates the
mistrust African Americans have with the government.
For Mills, who is director of the Texas Agriforestry Small Farmers and Ranchers, it sends the wrong message. “Here we go again. It pushes us back even further in terms of trying to engage Black landowners to participate in USDA programs,” Mills told The Texas Tribune.
Mills remembers milking cows and making butter with a churn as a child. His family grew corn and raised cattle, largely for themselves. While the farm was largely self-sustaining, the family also sold cotton in the market, where Mills said buyers offered his dad lower prices than they would white farmers. This was expected during Jim Crow.
From its earliest days, America used labor from enslaved people to build up its economy, and the generational wealth of white enslavers. Federal troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to ensure people still being forced into labor knew their enslavement was no longer legal. This was over two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Even when they made laws to give former slaves 40 acres and a mule, they took that back,” states Mills. Between 1937 and 1961, Congress changed eligibility for USDA loans from farm tenants, laborers and sharecroppers to family farm owner-operators with farming training or experience. “This change made it easier for county committees, which help deliver federal programs at the local level to deny loans to Black applicants,” the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund wrote in a court filing.
If the law continues to be blocked, the federation said its members will face “irreparable harm.” “Many Black farmers will lose their land and farming equipment to foreclosures,” the federation wrote. The federation is a nonprofit organization that provides resources to resource-challenged, African American farmers and landowners. It tried to intervene as a party in Miller’s lawsuit against Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, but a judge last month denied that attempt.
The federal government acknowledged its history of discrimination in two lawsuits settled in 1999 and 2010, which jointly made thousands of Black farmers eligible for over $2 billion collectively.
The first case was known as Pigford I, named after the farmer Timothy Pigford, who filed the case alongside 400 other plaintiffs. It resulted in a settlement worth more than $1 billion. Over 13,000 farmers, able to prove they faced discrimination in USDA loan programs, were eligible for $50,000 payouts.
After the USDA denied thousands of those claims for missing deadlines, the second case came. Pigford II resulted in a $1.25 billion settlement. “But the $2.25 billion total doesn’t begin to account for the economic damages incurred by Black landowners,” according to Thomas Mitchell. Nor does the $4 billion in debt relief included for farmers of color in the COVID-19 relief package signed into law this spring.
Mitchell is the co-director of Texas A&M’s Real Estate and Community Development Law program and a member of the Land Loss and Reparations Project, a research team analyzing the impact of land loss on African American wealth. The group’s preliminary analysis suggests the millions of acres lost by African American landowners over the last 100 years, known as “the great dispossession,” has resulted in over $300 billion lost.
“There’s no way that the [American Rescue Plan] represents anything approaching the level that it would take to make African American farmers whole,” Mitchell said. “It’s a lot more substantial than anything the federal government had done previously to try to remedy this incredible, horrible record of discrimination that’s been ongoing for 100 years.”
African American Franchisor
Dana White, owner of the Detroit-Based Paralee Boyd Salon, is the first African American woman in the U.S. to franchise a salon business [https://www.paraleeboyd.com/].
Paralee Boyd (pronounced para-lee) is the maternal grandmother of the owner Dana White. Boyd grew up in Camp Branch, Kentucky, and was the first generation not to work as a domestic for the Gilbert’s, the same family that had employed and enslaved her family since 1821. Instead, she sold pomegranate hand scrubs to Mrs. Gilbert’s bridge club to keep herself in school until the 9th grade.
As a young woman, Paralee met a young soldier back from the Korean war who had a General Motors job and wanted to build a life with her. They married and raised three daughters. At 54, Paralee succumbed to Pancreatic Cancer.
A beautiful woman, Paralee was someone who was all about community. Her kitchen and her ears left many in Northern Michigan feeling better after leaving her home.
Granddaughter Dana White incorporated Paralee’s spirit into her workplace environment when she started in Paralee Boyd Salon 2012.
White, a Michigan native, earned a B.A. in Political Science and Government in 2000, from Western Michigan University. A chance experience inside of a Dominican hair salon in New Jersey changed her life. “I went to the hair appointment at 10ish, and was done by 11:30, and couldn’t believe it,” White told the Atlanta Black Star.
White began her entrepreneurial journey as a salon owner in 2012, after taking out a $30,000 personal loan. Her vision: reduce the time a client’s hair was being serviced without affecting the quality of the outcome.
In a December 14, 2018 interview with Forbes, “A Detroit Entrepreneur Applies Lean Auto Manufacturing Principles To Build A Beauty Salon,” White stated, “We are very deliberate in the information in the data that we collect. We have used our lean manufacturing principles to design a space that allows it to run more efficiently.”
A former international labor specialist, White was thinking innovatively. Before hiring an architect, she brought in engineers from GM and Ford with the goal of ensuring that the salon operated as speedily and efficiently as an auto assembly line. The engineers told her where to place salon seats, towels and hairstyling tools to speed up the services.
Now she runs two salons and has become the first African American Franchisor of hair salons. This all was made possible, because she went and familiarized herself with the manufacturing principles that made America great, and applied those own practices into one day having hair franchises all over the United States.
African American Real Estate Broker
Tenisha Williams is the CEO and Founder of Elite Realty Partners, the largest African American owned, and woman-owned real estate brokerage firm in South Florida. [https://tenishawilliams.com/about/].
For Williams, her path to managing 150 real estate brokers and generating over $200 million in revenue, is a path not often traveled. At 15, Williams found herself pregnant; by 16, she was a teenage mom, and a not so common predictor of future success. After graduating from high school, she went to college at Florida A&M University. As a student and mom, these two worlds often intersected, requiring her daughter to be with her at University. “Many may see the shiny side of entrepreneurship but not know the true story behind ‘the glory’,” she tells Black Enterprise.
According to Williams, her success is attributable to her faith. Her nickname as “Your Favored Broker,” is a faith based reference to being highly favored. Living through that faith inspired her to form the non-profit organization She Is Me Advancement Group to help mothers and teenage daughters thrive through hard times.
In the United States homeownership is the backbone to generational wealth. Home equity is the one thing that gets passed to one generation from the next. According to OpenInvest, the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in history will pass down over $30 trillion in inheritance from baby boomers to millennials and Generation X across the next few decades.
Current U.S. Census data shows 74% of whites owned homes in 2021 compared to 44% of Blacks, a 30% gap. In Florida, 17% of Blacks are denied mortgage loans, while only 11% of whites. Mortgage loan denial has been an effective tool in the perpetuation of institutional racism.
Besides faith, Williams attributes her success to passion, “Passion over profit,” is the mantra she lives by. This mantra that people are the engine that drives growth is reflected in the numbers. Elite Realty Partners, Inc. has become one of the fastest-growing real estate agencies across the state of Florida. In 2021, she was named as one of the Most Influential and Prominent Black Women in Business and Industry, and was the recipient of the Legacy Builder Award.
Williams serves as an instrument for dreamers who wish to own a property and go-getters who aspire to get ahead in the game. Since dipping her toes into this highly competitive trade, Williams has delivered success to both her clients and agents. In an article in Black Enterprise, “How Tenisha Williams Went From Teen Mom to Owning A $200 Million Real Estate Brokerage,” her a the publication have the following exchange:
How do you feel about such an iconic milestone of hitting over $200 million in sales in less than three years?
So thankful! I was so focused on hitting our sales goal for 2021 that I forgot about tracking the overall goal. I just happened to pull the report recently and I remember just being in disbelief. I am honestly just so proud of our Elite Family for working so hard to help so many families in such a short period of time.
What have you done differently since your last milestone of $100 million in just two years?
We have done a lot different actually. However, I would say the main thing we’ve been doing is ensuring that each agent at our firm receives the tools and resources that they need to be successful.
What culture are you building @ Elite that’s causing you to stand out from the rest?
Family! We literally act like family. We understand that we are truly better together, and we have built a family of agents that lean on one another to ensure we provide Elite service from start to finish. As a result, we all succeed.
What do you think sets your brokerage apart from other brokerages?
The main thing that sets us apart is that we are truly an Elite family. I have witnessed and experienced friendships form, agents from all walks of life partnering up and winning together along with willing to help each other like I’ve never seen. An ideal family where no agent is an island.
Are you still expanding your agency without formal advertising or have you started to advertise now?
We still do not actively recruit agents by way of cold calling, email marketing, or anything of that sort. We have at least 175 real estate agents simply by showing the world through social media and word of mouth that we are super passionate about investing in our community, giving back, providing elite service, and changing the narrative within the Florida market.
What is the “secret sauce” to Elite’s success as quickly becoming one of the fastest-growing real estate companies in the U.S.?
Strong faith! I can’t say anything without first saying that our faith and trust in God deserve all the credit. As crazy as it may sound, having strong faith and being a brokerage that truly cares about our agents is truly the secret sauce.
Did you have any obstacles that you had to overcome to reach the $200 million sales mark and if so, what were they?
Managing and motivating people is no easy task. I would say that is the biggest obstacle to ensure that I lead by example, which can be overwhelming at times while still ensuring that we keep our agents motivated.
How do you keep your existing agents motivated to hit their goals?
I believe it has a lot to do with them being inspired by other agents within our firm. Going back to the family culture enables us to keep each other motivated and hold each other accountable.
Do you think that you will be able to expand into other states in the near future?
Yes, expanding is a part of the plan, but not immediately. I believe that one should take care of the home first, be sure the home is operating at its full potential before expanding to other markets. So, our focus is home for now, but we do have a particular state on our radar.
As a CEO and visionary, how do you stay fresh with ideas and vision for the future?
I am a heavy analyzer and thinker. Actually, I cannot take credit for a lot of the ideas because my husband who is also my business partner contributes to a lot of what we have in place. He is in the background silently, and I am the face of the brand that’s most visible.
As a CEO, the main thing that I have learned is the importance of continual personal development. I am in constant pursuit of becoming unrecognizable every six months because I truly believe that elevation has no ceiling.
If there was ONE person that you would love to have lunch or dinner with, who would they be and why?
Dottie Herman is known as the most successful woman in real estate. Some say the richest self-made woman in real estate and featured in Forbes and other magazines for all her great achievements. She recently stepped down as CEO of Douglas Elliman, which is New York’s biggest residential brokerage. She bought and built that firm years ago and I would love to pick her brain as I am truly inspired by her. One of her articles has been my screen saver on my cell phone and a part of my vision board for years.
For African Americans, the world of property ownership has not been easy since the end of slavery. Jim Crow laws in the South and segregation covenants everywhere else, prevented African Americans access to land. Land swindles, eminent domain, and lending practices by financial institutions all contributed to the age old adage, “A dream deferred, is a dream denied,” and owning a home is the core element to the American dream. Despite these roadblocks of the past, and of the present, these 5-notable African Americans in real estate are inspirational to all Americans, “you too can overcome.”
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