Updated: Feb 4
Today we highlight one of the most significant Black entrepreneurs of the 20th century. He has been an inspiration to many other well known businessmen for more than 80 years. During the worst economic times in American history Fuller left the security of a good job to start his own cosmetics company and in time became one of the wealthiest Black Americans of the time.
Samuel B. Fuller was born on June 4, 1905 in Monroe, Ouachita Parish, Louisiana to a family of sharecroppers. Due to extreme poverty, Samuel had to drop out of school in the sixth grade to work and help support the family. He began selling products door to door at the age of nine, which would help him later on as a budding entrepreneur.
As a teenager, his family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Because of the passing of his mother and no father around, Samuel and his six siblings had to fend for themselves. It can be said that these hard times is what gave him the will to succeed in business. He is quoted as saying: “The Relief People came and offered us some relief, but we did not take it because it was considered shame in those days for people to receive relief. We did not want our neighbors to think we couldn’t make it ourselves. So we youngsters made it for ourselves.”
In 1928 he moved to Chicago, working odd jobs before gaining employment as an insurance representative for CommonWealth Burial Association, an African American firm. He had a secure job during the Depression but decided to make it on his own preferring freedom to security. An inspiration indeed.
After borrowing $25 using his car as collateral. He along with his future wife Lestine Thornton invested in a load of soap from Boyer International Laboratories which manufactured Cosmetics products during this time. Their success selling door to door prompted them to invest another $1000. By 1929 Fuller Products was incorporated and in four years, in the midst of the Depression, he grew his company to a line of 30 products and began to hire additional salespeople.
The Great Migration proved beneficial to the Fuller’s as many Black Americans moved north to cities like Chicago for better opportunities. These became the core customer base from which they were able to see tremendous expansion. By 1939 they were able to open up a factory. In 1947, the Fullers purchased Boyer International Industries to prevent it bankruptcy, but kept their ownership a secret. This allowed them to further expand into deodorant, hosiery as well as hair and skin care and men suits. It didn’t stop there for the Fullers. Several newspapers were purchased such as the New York Age and the Pittsburgh Courier. They even expanded to owning department stores and the Regal Theater in Chicago.
By the 1950’s Samuel Fuller was known as the richest Black American man in the United States. The Fuller Products brand had $18 million in sales and a dedicated sales force of five thousand. Many of which would go on to build their own cosmetic empires and become wildly successful on their own. Fuller even hired sales people outside of the Black community saying: “It doesn’t make a difference about the color of an individuals skin. No one cares if the cow is Black, red, yellow or Brown. They want the milk it can produce.”
However, his fortunes began to change in the 1960’s. A white supremacist group known as the white citizens council began to boycott Fuller’s Nadal Products, once it came to light that a Black couple owned Boyer Laboratories. This didn’t hurt the Fuller name too much as his customer base was the Black community, not the white consumer. But then some comments he made when inducted into the National Association of Manufacturers in 1963 began to turn public sentiment against him in the Black community. During his acceptance speech he stated: “A lack of understanding of the capitalist system and not racial barriers was keeping Blacks from making progress." In another interview that same year he stated: “Negroes are not discriminated against because of the color of their skin. They are discriminated against because they have not anything to offer that people want to buy." Some might say his words were taken out of context. I’ll let you be the judge. Many Black leaders began to boycott his products which caused severe setbacks for the Fuller Brand name.
Further setbacks came as a result of unregistered promissory notes in Interstate Commerce which got him in trouble for violating the Federal Security Act. He pled guilty and had to repay $1.6 million to creditors which cause Fuller Products to file for bankruptcy to protect their assets in 1971. The company did reorganize and bounce back in 1972, but never to its peak in the 1950’s.
Due to declining health in 1976 he asked two of his protégés, who had built their own cosmetics empire, Joe and Eunice Dudley of Dudley Products to take over the Fuller name and keep it in the Black community. They successfully carried out his wishes before ultimately buying and absorbing Fuller brands into the Dudley name four years before Samuel Fuller's death at age 83 on Oct 24, 1988.
Samuel Dudley is an inspiration to business men and women of any color or nationality. Betting on himself to start a company during one of the worst economic times in this country and always emphasizing the important of Black Americans going into business for themselves. He argued that “wherever there is capitalism there is freedom." He was a member of the National Business League, where he served as President in the 1940’s and 50’s. He promoted civil rights and was briefly the head of the south side of Chicago’s NAACP. His legacy and influence lives on in the likes of Johnson and Dudley Products, just a couple of the companies that came in his wake and was inspired by his will to succeed.
^ "S.B. Fuller, Door-to-Door Entrepreneur, Dies at 83" The New York Times. Retrieved 5 August 2013.^ "WORLD: Weddings". Jet. XXII (19): 40. August 30, 1962. Retrieved September 16, 2015.^ "Thomas Ray Casey". Hamptonpirates.com. Retrieved September 16, 2015.^ "EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! 'NO LYE: AN AMERICAN BEAUTY STORY' GIVES EXCELLENT HISTORY LESSON". EURweb.com. 2019-12-03. Retrieved 2019-12-13.
Mary Fuller Casey, S.B. Fuller: Pioneer in Black Economic Development (Jamestown, N.C.: Bridgemaster Press, 2003).Beito, David and Linda (2009). Black Maverick: T.R.M. Howard's Fight for Civil Rights and Economic Power. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 978-0-252-03420-6.Dittmer, John (1994). Local People: the Struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. ISBN 0-252-02102-9..John N. Ingham and Lynne B. Feldman, eds. African American Business Leaders: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1994.S. B. Fuller. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 2: 1986-1990. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999.S. B. Fuller, Master of Enterprise: A Great Businessman Is Remembered." Issues & Views 5 (Winter 1989).