From being a stop on the Underground Railroad, the oldest African-American owned business lives on as a million-dollar enterprise

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 1, 2024 8:13 AM EDT
Eldon Ward. Photo credit: E.E. Ward Moving and Storage

Starting and building a successful business can be quite challenging. But the ultimate test of entrepreneurship often comes when a company’s founder is long gone. Can the business survive or even thrive without the original vision and leadership? Many entrepreneurs think that they are creating an enterprise, a legacy that can stand the test of time. That this seed they’ve planted can continuously adapt to the changing times, accommodate new ventures and survive economic downtimes. Not many can, by John T. Ward with a team of horses and a wagon did.

Boasting over 140 years in business, E.E. Ward Moving and Storage is recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce as the oldest continuously operating Black-owned business. It has survived the Jim Crow South, the Reconstruction Era, the civil rights movement and even a pandemic. Through two world wars and 27 presidential terms, the company has created numerous job opportunities and improved the quality of life for many.

The illustrious history of E.E. Ward Moving is inextricably woven into the fabric of America. It begins with John T. Ward and his wife Catherine, the owners of a farm in Columbus, Ohio which became a stop along the Underground Railroad. A conductor on the Underground Railroad, Ward helped slaves escape to freedom through various networks and safehouses in and around the area. He transported them from one depot to the next using two horses and a wagon. His home, known as ‘The Ward House’, was one of the main pit stops on the historic path to liberation.

“He serviced one of the travel points or mile marker points on the Underground Railroad. It would be a half a day or maybe a full day’s worth of traveling inconspicuously with horse and wagon to help these folks get further up north to the land of freedom,” Brian Brooks, co-owner and CEO of E.E. Ward Moving & Storage said of Ward’s hazardous journey freeing slaves.

A former foreman and supervisor of Union Transfer and Storage Company of Columbus, Ohio, he learned the trade of hauling goods. Ward received government contracts to haul munitions, supplies, and equipment for the U.S. Army when the Civil War started. Ward, with the assistance of his son William, used some of the freight wagons that carried supplies during the Civil War to establish the Ward Transfer Line in 1881. Beginning with two helpers, a team of horses, and a wagon, the father-son duo set on a history-making path.

When John T. Ward’s grandson Edgar Earl took over the business in 1899, it adopted its current name, E.E. Ward Transfer and Storage Company. The company adapted to the impending industrial changes as it entered a new century. The Wards implemented motorized moving during the shift towards motorized transportation in the early 1900s. By 1910 the company no longer used horse-powered vehicles and had officially retired its last horse by 1921.

It also expanded its clientele from families moving their furniture and household items to serve businesses and factories in the area. E.E. Ward Moving and Storage had more commercial clients by 1925, including Steinway Piano Company, for which it transported nearly 900,000 pianos. Continuing its tradition of family ownership, Eldon Ward, William’s grandson and John’s great-grandson joined the company in 1945. He was the last direct descendant of the founders to own the company.

When Eldon retired in 1996 there was no clear succession plan in place. He didn’t have children of his own and his niece who was managing the business was thinking about selling it or completely shutting it down altogether. Eldon was godfather to the son of his long-time attorney, Brian Brooks who was persuaded into buying the company. He didn’t know much about the business and was pursuing an MBA at the time but he was interested in keeping the E.E. Ward legacy alive.

In 2001, Brooks and his business partner Otto Beatty bought the company ensuring it remains as close to a family business as possible. E.E. Ward was averaging $300,000 annually with few employees, four trucks, and four trailers when the new owners officially took over business operations in 2003. They immediately set to updating technology and infrastructure to bring the company into the modern age. They swapped out old dial phones for modern equipment and hired a payroll company. Additionally, Brooks and Beatty implemented an aggressive marketing strategy by utilizing the Yellow Pages and trade magazines and sending postcards and fliers to realtors.

Beatty left the business in 2014, with Brooks continuing operations with his wife, Dominique. The company was averaging over $5 million annually and employing over 50 full-time workers by 2019. Specializing in commercial, employee, and household relocation and warehousing and customized logistics, E.E. Ward Moving has become a nationally recognized leader in the transportation and relocation industry. It has earned numerous honors such as the 2017 Moving and Storage Agent of the Year Service Excellence Award from the American Moving and Storage Association and the 2019 North American Van Lines Power of Blue Team of the Year.

“[E.E Ward] has been through the Civil War, the Great Depression, two world wars, the Great Recession, and 27 presidential terms, and never closed its doors. That’s an incredible story, and I think people can sit there and say, ‘Hmm, I can draw inspiration from that.’” Dominique Brooks, co-owner of E.E Ward Moving & Storage said about the company’s legacy.

The Brooks are focused on carrying on the Ward family’s commitment to positive social change. The company was a founding member of the Laps for Lunches program, which helps fight food insecurity. It also sponsors The Laps for Learning annual fundraiser which raises money for underprivileged youth to take swimming lessons.