How A Son Of Freed Slaves Became A Real Estate Tycoon
Anderson Hunt Brown, born in 1880, used his natural business genius to become one of the country’s first black property moguls – and he used his wealth to make serious strides for civil rights.
For Anderson Hunt (AH) Brown, frustration was a powerful factor that fueled much of his success.
The frustration and pain of losing three women to childbirth in his isolated hometown of Charleston, West Virginia, inspired him to fight for adequate medical care for black citizens. That push led to the opening of Community Hospital in 1924, the city’s first state-of-the-art hospital for black residents. Brown’s frustration with the lack of affordable housing for black families inspired him to build a real estate empire based on meeting those needs. His frustration with the discrimination, meanwhile, fueled a lifelong struggle to desegregate Charleston and create opportunities for black residents to thrive.
Brown was rarely alone in developing real estate for underserved communities. Many other developers did the same in a way that too often took advantage of black customers who had few rights or opportunities to live elsewhere. But the son of former slaves was part of a distinctive group of black real estate developers who built their fortunes from creating quality housing for people who had lived in slum-like conditions across the country. It’s a model attributed to black real estate agents like Philip A. Payton Jr. of Harlem and Dempsey Travis of Chicago, who also built their holdings in the early 20th century.
In addition to residential real estate development, Brown also built commercial properties and rented office space to other black entrepreneurs in Charleston, creating one of the first black-owned shared work spaces. By the time he died in 1974 at the age of 94, Brown had owned and managed up to 100 properties, according to Andrea Taylor, 74, Brown’s granddaughter and senior diversity officer at Boston University.
Building real estate wealth as a black entrepreneur in the early 1900s was a daunting goal. Until the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, racist policies or practices in housing were essentially legal. That made it difficult to own real estate and even more difficult to start a business in the sector.
“To be successful, black and black entrepreneurs had to be outliers,” said Don Peebles, CEO of The Peebles Corporation, which manages roughly $ 8 billion worth of real estate in New York and six other cities in the US, according to a study By the Bella Research Group and the Knight Foundation, only about 2% of real estate companies in the United States are now minority owned.
AH Brown (third from left) is sitting with his family. Left to right: his granddaughter’s husband Edward C. Coaxum, Jr., his great-grandson Wole Coaxum, his son-in-law Francis C. Taylor, and his granddaughter’s father-in-law Edward C. Coaxum, Sr.
I prefer coaxum
Brown understood this equation and used his influence and wealth to successfully launch legal battles that undermined racial segregation laws at local swimming pools, libraries, and food stalls in his home state. He instilled this passion for civil rights in his children: His son, Willard L. Brown, became the first black judge in West Virginia to represent the NAACP state chapter in a case of racial discrimination in public schools. This filing became part of the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court trial, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, which banned segregation in public schools. Today, Brown’s great-grandson, Wole Coaxum, continues that tradition as he strives to provide financial services to unbanked Americans and to narrow the racial wealth gap.
“[Brown] it was really about community building and diversity, equality and inclusion, which are now high on the list in every area of this country, ”says Taylor. “It didn’t happen by chance. There is a long history here. “
Brown was born on April 23, 1880, in a three bedroom home in Dunbar, West Virginia. Recently freed from slavery, his parents took on several jobs to make ends meet, including taking Brown and his siblings in their jobs as a farmer and laundress. Equipped with only a fourth grade, family members say Brown began his entrepreneurial journey at a young age: he climbed coal wagons, dumped coal on the tracks, and sold it with friends to local businesses for 50 cents.
Brown learned to play the trombone as a teenager and traveled to Cincinnati and other western cities with his brothers in their band, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Upon returning to Charleston, Brown learned how to cut meat and opened a butcher shop and restaurant attached. A few years later he took a real estate investment course in Boston and used his earnings to buy a house at 1219 Washington Street, next to Charleston High School.
AH Brown (third from left) stands with a group that includes Martin Luther King Sr. in Charleston, West Virginia’s First Baptist Church in 1971.
West Virginia State Archives
Because of the segregation, Brown saw the need to create the infrastructure the black community needed to survive, says Taylor. In the early 1920s, Brown built and rented offices to local entrepreneurs, including a restaurant, hot dog stand, drug store, barber shop, laundry rooms, and billiards room. The thriving area around his property became known as “The Block” and was a safe hangout for the black community for more than 50 years, Taylor recalls.
“He was the entrepreneur, the financier, and the person who knew how to fund projects,” she says. “He had an amazing work ethic. He had a routine of being set to the minute when he got to his office, when he went to sleep at night, and when he woke up in the morning when he had breakfast. He was a very methodical and very disciplined person. “
Lucia James, a family friend of the Browns who lived in Charleston in the 1950s, recalls how Brown would furnish many of his offices with the materials it needed. For example, while Brown rented office space to a prospective printer, he equipped the room with printing machines. “It was a microcosm of what was going on with Black Wall Streets in the United States,” says James of Brown’s successful block.
In addition to his commercial real estate, Brown bought land in the Charleston area to build houses that he rented cheaply to black community members who at the time might be struggling to secure housing from the mostly white real estate agents. When Brown’s children, Willard and Della, graduated from Boston University, Brown bought three properties in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Willard completed his Masters in Law in 1936; Della, an artist, graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts in 1945). With no shelter made available to black students, Brown let his children live in a house and rented the others to their black classmates.
“He actually spoke. He lived by the creed of being able to help others and was thereby enriched, but the community as a whole also benefited.”
To be successful as a real estate entrepreneur in Brown’s day was remarkable. Todd Michney, a history professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, notes that Brown was working in a field that was “directed against him.” In the 1920s, the all-white National Association of Real Estate Boards began filing court applications for the term “broker” as an exclusive trademark so that black real estate professionals were not legally allowed to refer to themselves as “brokers,” he says.
And while black real estate entrepreneurs like Brown have benefited from the niche market of selling to their own communities, they have faced challenges like lack of access to bank credit, says Beryl Satter, a history professor at Rutgers University-Newark.
“The comparison between what a black real estate entrepreneur or businessman has confronted with a white one is pretty extreme,” she says. “The successful had to overcome incredible obstacles, so we don’t know the names of so many great real estate agents who are African American.”
But Brown’s name can be found in the lawsuits and injunctions he filed during his year-long civil rights campaigns that he launched in 1928 after his then six-year-old daughter Della was banned from the Charleston public library, James said. And when his son Willard opened his law firm in Charleston in the late 1930s, the two fought side-by-side for the suspension of many of the city’s public services – though they weren’t fully successful until the 1950s.
“By combining access to good living space with civil rights, he understood housing as a civil rights issue very early on,” says Michney. “That was something that was really only discussed openly in the 1950s or 1960s.”
Taylor fondly remembers a time later in her grandfather’s life when, just a few years before his death in 1963, he took her on a bus to take part in the infamous March in Washington.
“He actually spoke. He lived by the creed of being able to help others and was enriched by it, but also the community as a whole benefited, ”says Taylor. “It’s part of his enduring legacy.”