The Black Businessman Who Built an Empire Despite Jim Crow Oppression

During the 1950s and ‘60s, the civil rights movement dominated the political landscape. But for Bernard Garrett, an African American born and raised in the South, the surest path to improving conditions for black Americans was by achieving economic freedom.

Garrett, unbeknownst to many, purchased at least 177 buildings, including what was considered to be the tallest structure in downtown Los Angeles in 1961, the Banker’s Building, all the while creating life-changing opportunities for African Americans.

“The only time a man is really truly rich is when he controls money,” Garrett said years later in an interview about his life.

Born in the small town of Willis, Texas, in 1922, Garrett showed a knack for business early on. He worked odd jobs, completing the 11th grade in Houston and running his own cleaning business. Garrett knew, however, he would need to leave the racial oppression of Texas if he wanted a chance to become a wealthy entrepreneur.

Bernard Garrett Moves to California With Family

In a beat-up van, Garrett, his first wife Eunice, and their small children, drove to California in 1945 in pursuit of opportunity. Once in the Golden State, Garrett started another cleaning service and a business collecting wastepaper, eventually saving enough money to buy property in Los Angeles. But his pathway to wealth accelerated when he met a white real estate investor, whom Garrett formally called Mr. Barker. Barker owned an apartment building for sale in a white neighborhood that Garrett wanted to buy. And with a convincing plan, he did.

Garrett paid below asking price, because the units needed fixing up, and obtained small loans from Barker and a bank to complete the project with an agreement that Garrett would rent out the building and pay back the loans. Garrett made good on his word, accomplishing two feats: he made a profit and rented units to blacks seeking better housing in an integrated area.

Barker and Garrett decided to form a partnership investing in properties, where Barker was the face of the deals and Garrett remained invisible.

“He operated in the shadows, because he had to,” says Brandon Winford, a historian at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and author of John Hervey Wheeler, Black Banking, and the Economic Struggle for Civil Rights. “He was seeking capital where capital was not available for African American businesspeople.”

By 1954, Garrett was worth $1.5 million, the equivalent of $14.3 million in current times, making him one of the wealthiest blacks in the country. But he wanted to make bigger deals, and after Barker died unexpectedly, Garrett became bolder in his mission.

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Source: History