SB Fuller was the richest African-American in the mid-20th century but he had controversial views on the racism suffered by Black people

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 29, 2024 2:38 PM EDT
S.B. Fuller. Photo credit: FEE

Despite living in one of the most repressive eras in American history, Samuel B. “SB” Fuller ardently believed that anyone in America could prosper through hard work, dedication and entrepreneurship. His rise in the business world was, after all, the epitome of grass to grace. With a sixth-grade education and a $25 loan, he rose from poverty in the deep South to become the richest African American man during the 1950s. He once saw his cosmetics company make $18 million in sales but Fuller even had more success, controlling eight other businesses.

Fuller was born in 1905 in rural Louisiana to a poor sharecropper family. His mother advised him that the best way out of poverty was through door-to-door sales. By the age of nine, Fuller was going door-to-door selling products. He was forced to drop out of school in the sixth grade to help his family on the farm. At age 15, the family moved to Nashville, Tennessee where his mother died two years later. Fuller had to use his budding entrepreneurial skills to support his six siblings. Although relief organizations offered assistance, he turned them down because he didn’t want the neighbors to think that they couldn’t survive without handouts.

“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,” Fuller would later boast about how they made it on their own without external help.

In search of better opportunities, Fuller hitchhiked to Chicago in 1928. He took on a series of menial jobs before rising to become the manager of a coal yard. He went on to become a salesman for the Commonwealth Burial Association and became its manager by 1934. Amid the Depression, Fuller decided to strike out on his own and start a business despite having a secure position at the insurance company. He founded his own company, Fuller Products, in 1929.

Using his car as a security deposit, he obtained a $25 loan (around $350 today) and started his own business. He invested his money in a soap load from Boyer International Laboratories, manufacturer of Jean Nadal Cosmetics and HA Hair Arranger which he sold door to door. The endeavor was so successful that Fuller invested another $1,000 in the enterprise. His clientele was mainly newly arrived Black families on the southside of Chicago as part of the first Great Migration. Fuller saw a potential gold mine in the underserved community and grew his business to include a line of 30 products and other salesmen.

Fuller opened his own factory in 1939. A little over a decade later, in 1947, he purchased his supplier Boyer to prevent its bankruptcy. He kept his ownership of the company a secret. It soon began to manufacture and sell a wide range of commodities from deodorant and hair care to hosiery and men’s suits. Fuller also purchased several Black newspapers including the New York Age and the Pittsburgh Courier and took ownership of the South Center Department Store and the Regal Theater in Chicago.

By the 1950s, his cosmetics company alone was bringing in $18 million (around $200 million today) annually and had a sales team of 5,000 members. Fuller was the richest Black American throughout the mid-20th century. He gave back to the Black community by providing inspirational speeches and practical training to many future entrepreneurs and leaders. The likes of John H. Johnson of Johnson Publishing and George Ellis Johnson of Johnson Products were trained and inspired by Fuller.

“It doesn’t make any difference about the color of an individual’s skin. No one cares whether a cow is black, red, yellow, or brown. They want to know how much milk it can produce,” Fuller once said of the economic standing of African Americans. Contrary to this opinion, the White Citizens Councils organized a boycott of Fuller’s Nadal products line during the 1950s when they learned the company was owned by an African-American. It marked a turn of fortune that would affect his business interests in the coming decade.

In 1963, Fuller became the first African-American to be inducted into the National Association of Manufacturers. “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,” he stated during his acceptance speech. His comments were received with general contempt among Black people who reacted angrily and called for a boycott of Fuller Products. The company consequently suffered severe setbacks. 

Fuller later sold unregistered promissory notes in interstate commerce in 1968 for which he was charged with violating the Federal Securities Act. He pled guilty, was placed on five years probation, and ordered to repay creditors $1.6 million. Fuller Products entered bankruptcy in 1971. It reorganized the following year, rebuilt the cosmetics portion, and reported profits of $300,000 but never returned to its previous glory.

Due to Fuller’s health problems, his top distributor, Joe Louis Dudley, Sr., became President of the company in 1976, eventually purchasing it in 1984.

In 1988, Fuller died due to kidney failure. Without relying on private charity or government assistance, he struck out on his own and found success. He leaves behind a legacy of unequivocal Black achievement.