Taking History into the New Year
At a young age, it didn’t seem apparent that I would become an entrepreneur. Both my parents were teachers who were part of the “get a good job” generation. They instilled in my head; go to college, get a job, then go to grad school and then get a good job, marry, have children and live happily ever after. Boy, were they in for a big surprise when they had me, the youngest and the feistiest of their two daughters. (Yes, my sister is a high school teacher and Upper School Head at the The Pingry School in New Jersey). At least one of their daughter’s listened to them!
I didn’t understand why I was so different from the rest of my family. As a little girl, I played cash register or store; instead of with Barbie dolls. Not sure what girls saw in those stick figures with mashed up blonde hay-like hair? Finally, my Communications Manager, Kelly Garnett did some digging and she found the story of my ancestry. Much of it was provided my 70-something Aunt Henrietta. Here’s the story – I hope you find it fascinating as much as I did.
It all began in the early 1900’s when my maternal great-grandfather, Allen “Papa” Carney, a free African-American man, owned a large farm in Mississippi and sold his vegetables during the time of slavery. He had 18 children: eight by his first wife who passed away, and 10 by his second wife, the sister of his first wife.
During the Migration in the 1920’s, he took his family north to Chicago. With his large family and many sons, Allen Carney insisted that his sons become entrepreneurs as he was. These sons had cleaning services, beauty parlors and barber shops. They took in laundry and made their own money. They eventually went on to own candy stores and grocery stores. Some sold ice cream on the streets of Chicago. All of the Carney sons lived together during these times to economize and pool their financial resources. Each of these industrious entrepreneurs moved on to own their own homes.
One of Papa Carney’s sons and my maternal grandfather, Henry Allen Carney, left this tight-knit clan in the 1930s when, after years of dealing in chemicals, developed a detergent chemical and was made an offer by a white-owned company in Jersey City, New Jersey. Such an offer to an African-American entrepreneur was unheard of in this 1934/1935 time period. This company wanted Henry’s product to be used in their laundry and sterilization units and Henry was proud to launch his product and moved himself and his wife, Dolores, and daughter, Dorothy, to Jersey City.
Papa Carney promptly disowned his son Henry because he had previously vowed his sons would never work for a white man. So Henry was alone in his new venture, separated permanently from his large family. He and his wife had five children, my mother, Leander, and her Aunts Henrietta, Dorothy, Dolores “Peaches,” and Uncle Henry, Jr.
Allen and Enid Brown, my paternal grandparents, migrated from Jamaica to New York in the 1930s. They owned a clothes cleaning shop near New York City’s Harlem on 117th St. and 8th Ave. for 10 years. They also did tailoring, clothing repairs and dressmaking on premises.
Enid was an extremely talented dress designer for couture dressmakers. In 1929, she went to design school to further her talent and skills as dress designer. Her talent was soon discovered, and a very high-end retailer (we cannot reveal the name because this was not a publicly known arrangement) came to Enid at her home in Harlem to have dresses produced. She designed and made both couture and wedding dresses.
Enid was also sought out by another retailer to create coats for their organization. The retailer would bring her pieces of sumptuous fabrics and she would create elegant, well-made coats. She did this from her home while she was raising her three sons, Kenneth, Allen and Bernard.
Allen and Enid sold their cleaning and tailoring business in the 1960s and Allen went to work for General Motors to secure his pension for their future.
In the 1940’s, when my mother and her siblings were young, their father, Henry, passed away. His wife and my maternal grandmother, Dolores, found “home work” by bringing work home to do to sustain her family. She brought home work from a company that made pens and mechanical pencils. Each Saturday morning, Dolores and her five children would sit together and make the small mechanisms inside the pencils and pens. Dolores would take the parts back to the company on Monday mornings.
So as you see, despite both my paternal and maternal families ending up having “regular jobs”…it was entrepreneurship that was in their blood. With the migration of industry to the Northeast between the 1940-1960’s; it seemed more practical to get a job that had health benefits and a pension, especially for Blacks. Now the time has changed, we have legislation that provide a fair playing ground for small women and minority owned businesses which has helped paved the way for my business. So as we enter into this New Year, I would like to give homage to my ancestors that sacrificed for me in their own special way and passing me the entrepreneurship gene!