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Tom Brown opened Boston’s corporate job market to Blacks

Melvin B. Miller
Tom Brown opened Boston’s corporate job market to Blacks
“We can’t live a first class lifestyle until we have a first class income.”

In the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, the primary economic issue was employment. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it illegal to discriminate against job seekers on the basis of race. There was little thought then of pursuing programs to close the racial wealth gap. As Blacks now push for financial equality, it might be well to consider past efforts to improve the financial status of Blacks.

There has always been a paucity of well-paying jobs available to Blacks. There have always been jobs, but they were mostly for Blacks who can handle a shovel or push a broom. Low-level administrative positions were chronically devoid of Blacks. The late Thomas Brown, one of Boston’s unsung heroes, sacrificed his professional life to change that.

Tom Brown was a graduate of Brown University in Providence at a time when few Blacks attended Ivy League colleges. He came to Boston and became active in the advertising industry, a profession very rare for Blacks. His manner was so appealing that Brown came to the attention of the founder and CEO of the Polaroid Corporation, Edwin H. Land. Back then, the Polaroid technology was a technological breakthrough. Brown became the special assistant to Land. Suddenly, Tom Brown had access to the top executives of Boston’s business community. He would contact a business executive and comment unfavorably, but with considerable sophistication, about the absence of Black upper-level employees in their companies. The answer was usually that they had tried without success to hire Blacks.

So Brown formed Jobs Clearing House, an agency to arrange for the employment of Blacks in Boston at the administrative or executive level. Companies would not be charged a fee for placing a job request with Jobs Clearing House, and the ad would be published in the Banner without a fee to Brown’s organization. Tom Brown never took a salary for his years of work at Jobs Clearing House and the Banner never charged for their ads. Also, no job applicant was ever charged a fee.

An estimated 10,000 Blacks were hired through Jobs Clearing House. This was a major change in the employment status of Blacks in Boston. Unfortunately, only one job seeker, according to Brown, ever returned to contribute to Jobs Clearing House after they were hired. Few seemed to realize how much Brown had sacrificed for their benefit.

Back in the early civil rights days, even well-intentioned whites thought that the vigorous advocates for Blacks were somehow antagonistic to their interests. Despite his extraordinary background and his cordial demeanor, Brown was consequently never invited to add his wisdom to a corporate board.

Now race activists understand that the real objective is to build Black wealth, regardless of whether the relationship with whites is cordial. Black elders understood that decades ago. The problem has been that the economic system is very complex. In 2002, the Banner publisher wrote a handbook entitled “How to Get Rich When You Ain’t Got Nothing: The African American Guide to Gaining and Building Wealth.” The book provided basic economics 101 issues.

The book advises that “the objective in getting rich is to acquire substantial future buying power.” The goal should not be excessive present consumption, but building wealth. That is a big challenge for those who have been forced to live hand-to-mouth. The first step is a good job and a personal budget. Thrift is then required to build wealth.

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