Reference Entry

Fuller, S. B.

Jonathan J. Bean

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Fuller, S. B.

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businessman, publisher, and self-help advocate, was born Samuel Bacon Fuller in Monroe, Louisiana, the son of William Fuller, a sharecropper and commercial fisherman, and Ethel Johnson Fuller, a domestic servant. His formal education ended after the sixth grade, and the young Fuller took up door-to-door sales. In 1920 the Fuller family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. When his mother died in 1922, Fuller's father abandoned the family, leaving S.B. in charge of six siblings; they refused charity and worked various jobs to survive. In 1923 Fuller married Lorena Whitfield; they had six children before they divorced in 1945. One year later Fuller married Lestine Thornton, a long-time assistant. In 1928 Fuller moved to Chicago, joining the Great Migration of African Americans from the South to northern cities. There he worked for seven years, first as a coal deliverer, then as a life insurance salesman and manager for the black-owned Commonwealth Burial Association.Fuller's entrepreneurial career began in 1935, when he established Fuller Products Company with only $25. He began by selling soap door to door on the South Side of Chicago, an area where other black migrants had settled. Sales grew rapidly and Fuller hired salespeople to peddle soap and other beauty products door-to-door. During this time he gave many inspirational speeches to salesman and business associations. In later years he put his oratorical ability to use by speaking to audiences of black and white businesspeople. He served as president of Chicago's Negro Chamber of Commerce. Following in the tradition of Booker T. Washington, Fuller was a staunch advocate of free enterprise and an opponent of government assistance in any form.In 1947 Fuller expanded his manufacturing capability by purchasing the white-owned Boyer International Laboratories. Reflecting his commitment to integration, he kept the white employees on the payroll. The Boyer Company extended Fuller's reach into the South, where the firm sold men's hairdressing products, women's cosmetics, and beauty shop supplies. Also during the 1940s and 1950s he trained or influenced many future icons of black business: George Johnson, who founded Johnson Products Company, a competing hair-product firm; John Johnson (1918–2005), the publisher of Ebony; Joe Dudley of Dudley Products; Mary Ellen Schadd Strong, founder of Black Family Magazine, and Rick McGuire of Seaway Furniture.By the early 1960s Fuller had become perhaps the richest black man in the United States. His company (not to be confused with the Fuller Brush Company) grossed ten million dollars annually, sold three hundred products, and employed five thousand salespersons in thirty-eight states. He further diversified by purchasing real estate, a large Chicago department store, and two major newspapers, the influential New York Age and the nationally distributed Pittsburgh Courier. He was the first black businessperson admitted to the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) and the National Association of Direct Sellers. His goal was to create a self-sustaining $100 million enterprise that would outlive him; he feared small “black businesses die when the founder dies” (Casey, 72).Politically Fuller was a conservative Republican who believed in small government. Yet, he was also a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), supporting its legal efforts for equality, while downplaying the need for direct confrontation or demonstrations in the streets. During the Montgomery bus boycott, for example, he tried unsuccessfully to purchase the bus company, reasoning that there would be no discrimination if blacks owned the money-losing enterprise. Eventually, however, Fuller's conservative philosophy of self-help and color blindness damaged his enterprise. In 1963 he gave an address to a NAM convention that sparked a backlash in the African American community. In his NAM address Fuller stated that blacks created a “racial barrier” against themselves by failing to start businesses in their communities. The Amsterdam News, a New York City black newspaper, published an article in which civil rights leaders blasted Fuller for his seeming indifference to the plight of other African Americans. His critics included the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Congress of Racial Equality, and even Jackie Robinson. Soon there were boycotts of Fuller products in the North, while white citizens councils in the South boycotted his company when they discovered he owned the formerly white-owned Boyer Company.Trying to bail out his struggling company, Fuller issued unregistered promissory notes, which led the Securities and Exchange Commission to investigate and fine the company. In 1968 Fuller Products Company filed for bankruptcy. After reorganizing and selling off its subsidiaries, the company enjoyed a modest recovery in the 1970s before finally selling out to Dudley Products, a firm started by a former Fuller employee.During his years of success, Fuller gave to many church and charitable causes. In his final years the man who always rejected charity received it in the form of testimonial contributions from successful “Fullerites” who had learned from “the Dean of Black Entrepreneurs.” One of these contributors, Johnson, said of Fuller, “If there had been no you, there would be no us” (Casey, 140).Fuller advocated the Washingtonian philosophy of self-help and epitomized an early generation of black businesspeople who achieved success through determination, talented selling, and inspiring his employees with uplifting rhetoric rather than formal education or political influence. Tragically, Fuller's success led to backlash from resentful whites and militant blacks. Nevertheless, his legacy lived on in the careers of other black entrepreneurs and he is still revered by many in the black business community.

Reference Entry.  969 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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