Abstract

Using a narrative approach, we present the rich historical case of Joseph Cassey, a free black, immigrant, entrepreneur in post-Colonial Philadelphia. We use his story to explore the many dimensions of environmental munificence and the interactions of these dimensions with both changing social relations and the entrepreneurial process. Quaker and German colonist activism against slavery led to the “Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery” in 1780, ending the slave trade in Philadelphia. While white anti-slavery proponents may not have considered blacks to be equal to whites, the environment was supportive of free blacks’ efforts in business, religion, and education. This generally munificent environment enabled black entrepreneurs to flourish within specific economic niches, develop cross-race and class social networks, create significant wealth, and become active benefactors within the black community.

Indeed, few people were better positioned than two black entrepreneurs, hair dresser Joseph Cassey and sail-maker James Forten, to illustrate effective wealth creation strategies for entrepreneurs from disadvantaged groups. Initially, such entrepreneurs were enabled by the strong Quaker influence that created a benevolent environment for black enclave churches and businesses, as well as trade specialization, to find profitable niche trades that operated along social fault lines between races. However, when the social environment became less hospitable during the violent race riots of the 1830s and 1840s, neither business acumen nor carefully cultivated networks could salvage the businesses of such visible black entrepreneurs.

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