It’s hard to imagine an industry with a history more patrician than that of Wall Street. For at least the first 150 years, it was a place that offered no opportunity for women or people of color.

But as was the case in many industries throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s, a small group of individuals with perseverance and determination found a way to break into the elite club of investing, forging a path for generations of African Americans and other minorities to follow and expand.

Here are just some of those remarkable individuals who helped break down the barriers in brokerage and investment banking in the 20th century.1
A timeline of breaking barriers on Wall Street: Entrepreneurs like A.G. Gaston and Madam C.J. Walker established multi-million dollar businesses (early 1900s); First registered African American securities salesman (1949); First African American securities firm founded with NASD license (1952); First African American woman, Lilla St. John, passes NYSE exam (1953); First African American securities firm opened on Wall Street by Phil M. Jenkins and Harry L. Wright (1960); African American securities firm leads the largest bond offering in the history of L.A. (1993); African American E. Stanley O'Neal named CEO, Chairman of the Board at a major brokerage and investment bank (early 2000s)

The Early Capitalists

Entrepreneurs who established highly successful businesses in the late 1800s to early 1900s were among the first to help pave the way for African Americans in finance. Their businesses included insurance companies, banks, hotels, radio stations and haircare products. They were some of the country’s first African-American millionaires who gave other African Americans the confidence to dream and succeed as capitalists in their own right.

Arthur G. Gaston (Founder of successful insurance company, among other businesses); Alonzo Herndon (Founder of successful Atlanta-based life insurance company); John Merrick, A.M. Moore, C.C. Spaulding (Co-founders of successful North Carolina life insurance company); Madam C.J. Walker (Consumer products mogul)

The First Registered Reps & Licensed Brokerages 

Depending on which media account you read, either Thorvald McGregor or Lawrence Lewis are credited with being the first registered African-American securities salesman in 1949.

Shortly following in Cleveland, Ohio, businessman Norman McGhee established his namesake firm, McGhee & Company, becoming the first African-American securities firm to obtain a National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) license in 1952.

McGhee’s groundbreaking firm was followed by Philip Jenkin’s Specialty Markets, Inc., which was significant for its location just steps away from Wall Street. It was the first African-American-owned securities firm located “in the Wall Street area” in 1955.

It wasn’t until 1960, however, that the first African-American-owned securities firm, H. L. Wright & Company, opened directly on Wall Street.

In the meantime, a 25-year-old native Wisconsinite named Lilla St. John became the first African-American woman to pass the NYSE exam in 1953, becoming a certified investment counselor.

The Mainstream Brokers

In January 1965, Harvey Thomas, Forrest Tomlinson, and George King were the first three African-American brokers to be hired by Merrill Lynch. These three men represented the only people of color out of 2,550 total account executives, but they had successfully broken the color barrier at one of the largest mainstream securities firms of the time.

In the same decade, there also was a small group of African-American women who made their way into the brokerage business. June Middleton was one of them. She worked for a firm called Hornblower & Weeks-Hemphill, and many believe that when she entered the field in 1964, she was the only African-American female stockbroker working for a NYSE firm. Ms. Middleton grew up in Manhattan and reportedly learned to read and interpret the stock market tables while attending a Manhattan public school.

Rising to the Top

After a long struggle to receive SEC exemption from an obscure law inhibiting their financing, Travers Bell and Willie Daniels established Daniels & Bell, Inc. in 1971, making it the first African-American firm of the NYSE. In 1973, a Daniels & Bell investment banker named Herbert Britton went on to lead the issuing of the first municipal bond offering from an African-American investment bank.

By the mid-1980s, African-American professionals were rising to the top ranks of the world’s most prestigious firms. Frank Raines was made a partner at Lazard Freres, making him the first African-American partner in a major investment bank.  Shortly after, Garland Wood became the first African-American partner at Goldman Sachs, where he distinguished himself as a municipal bond innovator.

To the surprise of many in the financial industry, in 1993 an African-American-owned investment bank called Grigsby Brandford bested Goldman Sachs, Banc America, and many other firms to lead the largest bond offering in the history of the City of Los Angeles.

Roughly a decade later in 2004, African-American E. Stanley O’Neal was named CEO and Chairman of the Board of Merrill Lynch & Co., Inc., a firm where just a little over three decades earlier there had been only three persons of color within the entire firm’s executive ranks.

Today, African-American men and women hold positions as investment bankers, traders, asset managers, venture capitalists, private equity financiers, and top executives at financial services firms on Wall Street and around the country.

However, the journey towards greater representation and inclusion in the financial industry continues. There are, of course, many more stories of individuals who contributed to and continue to contribute to the ascent of African Americans on Wall Street. It’s clear that many more chapters are yet to be written.

To read more about those mentioned here and others, see In the Black. A History of African Americans on Wall Street, by Gregory S. Bell (the son of Travers J. Bell, Jr., one of the figures mentioned above).

1. Gregory S. Bell, In the Black. A History of African Americans on Wall Street. John Wiley & Sons, New York, 2002.