Among the most influential African American leaders of the late nineteenth century, W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington both espoused the value of business education. Washington served as principal of Tuskegee University, which provided vocational training in agriculture and industry, from its founding in 1881.2 Du Bois believed a liberal arts education played a critical role in the economic advancement of African Americans. "For the Negro then to go into business means a great deal," Du Bois wrote. "It is, indeed, a step in social progress worth measuring."3 Harvard Business School (HBS), the country's first graduate program in business administration, opened its doors in 1908. Many of the first African American students came from historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) as well as Harvard College. They were among the earliest students in the country to earn an MBA. The first known African American graduate of HBS was Wendell Thomas Cunningham (MBA '15).

Organized by W. E. B. Du Bois under the auspices of Atlanta University, the Atlanta Conferences addressed pressing economic issues that the Black community faced. The fourth annual conference was entitled "The Negro in Business." In 1900, Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL) to promote commercial and financial endeavors in the African American community. By 1914, it had grown to more than 10,000 members in 600 chapters.
Wendell Thomas Cunningham (MBA '15), pictured center, was the first known African American HBS graduate. He joined Cunningham & Sons, a prominent real estate firm in Atlanta, founded by his father Samuel Cunningham, who had been born into slavery.
Click on photos above to learn more
Between 1915 and 1930 approximately 12 African Americans attended HBS. They forged successful careers in insurance, real estate, and finance, as well as higher education, government, and public service.
“African-American Student Union Marks 25 Years at HBS.” Harvard Business School Bulletin, June 1994, 36.
Washington, Booker T. The Negro in Business. Boston: Hertel, Jenkins & Co., 1907.
W. E. Burghardt Du Bois, Ed. The Negro in Business: Report of a Social Study made under the direction of Atlanta University; together with the proceedings of the Fourth Conference for the study of the Negro Problems, held at Atlanta University, May 30-31, 1899. Atlanta, GA: Atlanta University Press, 1899, p. 5.