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Delta pioneer
Delta pioneer
Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power
By David T. Beito and Linda Royster Beito
University of Illinois Press, 336 pages, $35

Think you had it tough starting a business? Theodore Roosevelt Mason Howard had it tougher. On top of the usual stresses, he had to worry about getting killed.

Howard was a physician, banker, insurer and farmer who launched several businesses in the Mississippi Delta of the 1940s, where African Americans had few rights and "uppity" blacks could be murdered with near impunity. He handled this particular problem by packing a firearm and hiring bodyguards.

He could afford it. Howard rose from poverty to become one of the richest blacks in Mississippi. He also joined the struggle for civil rights, funding or mentoring such pioneers as Medgar Evers and Jesse Jackson.

During the civil rights era, many black business owners were able to champion racial equality when pastors and educators were often too poor or too reliant on white patrons to act as freely. Black publishers, bankers and other entrepreneurs serving primarily black markets were more insulated from the economic pressures of segregation. One of Howard's boldest moves involved funneling African American deposits into a Memphis bank, which funded blacks frozen out by other financial service providers in retaliation for their civil rights activities.

Howard was no saint. He fathered at least eight children out of wedlock, and at times his ego seemed as large as his accomplishments. Nevertheless, you will likely never read about a more courageous or interesting entrepreneur.


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