It was the late 1980’s, and life was great for the Alford/DeBow family. In such a short time Kay and I had developed quite a portfolio: Military Officer experience, Big 10 graduates living in Big 10 Country, Fortune 100 corporate experience, real estate brokerage training and entrepreneurship experience. We had closed the video stores and decided to never return to corporate or retail America. Real estate was up and down but was mostly up since we specialized in new properties for professional athletes, doctors, dentists, attorneys and other Black professional backgrounds. Indianapolis had a mushrooming Black middle class sprouting throughout central Indiana and we were bona fide parts of it.
For the Black population, Indiana was rather unique. The Democratic Party was influenced by the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920’s and 1930’s. I found it quite strange that the Republican had a good hold on the Black vote in central Indiana. Northern Indiana and Southern Indiana were hopelessly Democratic. However, the Governor Seat and the two senator offices had been in control of the Republican Party for over 20 years. There was a new movement catching on. Black professionals started looking at the Democratic Party in Indiana. Many of Kay’s relatives and childhood friends were joining with the Democrat movement for the Governor seat. She jumped in and carried me with her.
We were running up and down the state telling everyone to vote for Evan Bayh for Governor in 1988. The hard work paid off. Evan Bayh had an amazing upset victory and the democrats began to take over the state employment network. Little did we know that when you won a major election, the victory was taking over the employment slots and filling them with your political party network.
There were meetings to go to and available positions to fill. It was the Transition Period and it was like going to Disneyland for many of us. Kay would hold out and become the Director of Marketing for the Hoosier Lottery. There was another slot that many thought was interesting. It was: Deputy Administrator for Minority Business Development. It turned out to be a natural for someone with my background. At one of the meetings Kay pronounced, “That job description is describing my husband!” She felt so strong about it that she took my resume to our next-door neighbor – who happened to be the new Secretary of Personnel.
The next thing I was in an interview before the Secretary of Personnel, Secretary of Administration and a couple of Governor Bayh’s advisors.The author of the job position was State Senator Carolyn Mosby. She firmly stated: “I am the reason for this position. We are supposed to have 5% of all business contracts going to minority business owners. We have yet to achieve 1%. If you are selected for this position do you commit to making the 5% goal a reality within the next four years?”
My reply would be prophetic: “If the Governor and you are sincere about achieving the 5% goal, then it will be done. I have the training and leadership skills to make that a reality and at lightning quick speed.”
It was just so simple to me. If the “Commander in Chief” wants something done and was giving me the authority to make it happen, then it will be done. I guess that’s why I ran through the 5% goal within 18 months and started marching “North” from that point on. It didn’t take long for the “wake up call” to hit me. Black businesses prospering is not an expected event nor is it desirable. The white power structure will backlash like “I- 40 going west”.
To Indiana Black business owners, I became a hero. To the political power base (both Republican and Democrat) I became a “pimple” that needed popping. Years later, I would notice it more and more. The Ron Browns and Alphonso Jacksons would meet hatred and fierce resistance from the powers that be. To us they were heroes. To the other side they were like “Moses approaching the Pharaoh”.
It was too late for the haters. I caught the vision and it was to achieve economic empowerment through “advocacy” that answers only to its own “constituency”. I wrestled with it for a few years and after studying Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglas it became clear to me: “If not you than who; if not now then when”. There was no organization known as a National Black Chamber of Commerce. It was a true blessing when my search showed that the name had never been claimed by anyone.
With a couple of dozen of our close friends and Kay’s kitchen table, we began the work: From Indianapolis to Washington, DC – look out world here comes the NATIONAL BLACK CHAMBER OF COMMERCE.
Mr. Alford is the Co-Founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce ® Ms. DeBow is the Co-Founder, Executive Vice President of the Chamber.