Black History Month: African Americans Who Have Shaped the Real Estate Industry

February marks Black History Month, when we’re asked to reflect on the accomplishments and contributions of African Americans throughout history. 

One industry that has seen a significant impact from people of color is the real estate industry. From trailblazers who broke barriers to become some of the first Black homeowners and developers, to current leaders working to increase diversity and equity in the industry, the contributions of people of color in real estate are undeniable. 

Let’s look at some of the most influential figures in the industry, and explore how their legacies continue to shape the industry today.

Zipporah Potter Atkins – 1645-1705

Zipporah Potter Atkins faced a triad of obstacles: She was single and a woman in a time when women had few economic opportunities or rights of their own and she was a free Black in a time when most African Americans in the area were still slaves.

Although both of her parents were slaves, Massachusetts law at the time considered the children of slaves to be free upon birth. When Atkins inherited some money her father’s former owner paid him in 1670, she used the capital to buy property in her own name, and records show that she retained full ownership even after she married. 

Furthermore, when Atkins sold the property in 1693, she signed the deed with her initials, indicating that she was literate in an age when many people, Blacks especially, were not.

Atkins’ legacy continues to be celebrated as a symbol of the resilience and determination of people of color in the face of adversity. Her story also highlights the difficulties that Black people faced in owning property during the time, the importance of property ownership as a means of economic and social mobility, and the impact that the actions of one person can have on a community.

B.C. Franklin – 1879-1960

The grandson (or son) of slaves, B.C. “Buck” Franklin was a prominent African American lawyer, businessman and community leader in Greenwood, the area known as “Black Wall Street.” After an allegation of assault spawned the days-long 1921 Tulsa Race Riot and the deaths of hundreds of Black residents Franklin emerged as a leader in the rebuilding effort. 

He worked tirelessly to help residents of the Greenwood District recover from the devastating riots and to ensure that the community was able to rebuild and thrive once again. He also negotiated with insurance companies and the city government to secure compensation for the damages caused by the riots, even as he worked to secure loans and investments for the rebuilding of the Greenwood District.

Franklin’s tireless efforts played a crucial role in the rebuilding of Greenwood, and his legacy continues to be celebrated as a symbol of the resilience and determination of the African American community in the face of adversity. His story illustrates the importance of community leaders and their role in rebuilding the communities affected by racism and violence.

Clarence Mitchell Jr. – 1911-1984

Clarence Mitchell Jr. was a prominent lobbyist who was sometimes called the “101st Senator” for his ability to influence legislation and public policy on civil rights issues and his constant presence in the halls of government.

Mitchell played a key role in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin in voting, education, and the workplace. In 1968, Mitchell helped to pass the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and sex. 

These were significant steps forward in the fight for fair housing and helped to break down the barriers of racial segregation. They allowed Black families to begin accumulating generational wealth in a way that had once been impossible for people of color.

Mitchell’s contributions to the Civil Rights Movement were recognized by many, and his legacy continues to be honored as an important figure in the history of civil rights and the fair housing movement in the United States.

Ernesta Procope – 1923-2021

Born in New York City in 1913, Ernesta Procope was an African American businesswoman and community leader who played a significant role in helping Black homeowners secure insurance. In an era when women entrepreneurs were a rarity, she was the founder and president of E.G. Bowman Company, one of the first Black-owned insurance companies in the United States.

Procope’s company was one of the few options for Black homeowners to secure insurance at a time when many white-owned insurance companies refused to insure properties in Black neighborhoods, which were often considered “high-risk” areas. Through her company, she helped to break down the barriers of discrimination and provide insurance coverage to thousands of Black homeowners. 

Procope was also a community leader and the first African American woman appointed to the New York State Board of Real Property Services, where she served from 1971 to 1975.

Procope’s legacy continues to be celebrated as a pioneer in the insurance industry and a leader in the African American community. Her story illustrates the challenges faced by Black people in accessing basic services such as insurance and the importance of representation and leadership in breaking down these barriers.

Patricia Roberts Harris 1924-1985

Patricia Roberts Harris was the first African American woman to hold a cabinet-level position in the United States government, serving as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) under President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1979. She later also became the first Black woman to hold the position of Ambassador.

Harris began her career as a lawyer, and served as the Director of the Washington D.C. Office of Human Rights, working on fair housing and civil rights issues. She also served as a member of the National Commission Against Discrimination in Housing and the National Committee Against Discrimination in Employment.

As Secretary of HUD, Harris worked to promote fair housing, combat discrimination in housing, and improve the living conditions of low-income families. She implemented policies to increase the availability of affordable housing and expanded the department’s programs to help low-income families purchase their own homes. Harris also worked to improve the lives of people living in public housing by implementing maintenance programs to improve the maintenance and increasing the availability of services such as job training and education.

Harris’s legacy continues to be celebrated as a trailblazer and a role model for women and people of color in leadership positions. Her story illustrates the importance of representation in government and the role that government can play in addressing issues of housing discrimination.

Throughout history, Black Americans have faced significant barriers to equality, but that hasn’t stopped people from making significant contributions to shaping the real estate industry as it is today. These contributions include fighting against discriminatory practices like redlining, developing communities and building wealth through homeownership, and advocating for policy changes to promote fair housing. With that in mind, we wish you all a happy, healthy Black History month!