Black Chambers of Commerce and African American businesses across the nation have been mourning the death of Harry Cicero Alford, president and CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, who died Dec. 6 in Washington, D.C.
Alford co-founded the NBCC with his wife, Kay DeBow, the chamber’s vice president, who died July 19. The two met June 8, 1980. They were married later that year, on Oct. 31.
In 1989, Alford began working as Deputy Commissioner for Minority Business Development for the State of Indiana. It was during this brief tenure that he noticed that every ethnic segment of America had a national business association representing its economic interests and promoting “fair play” for its constituents – with the exception of the African Americans community. Moreover, as little as 1% of Black businesses received government contracts.
After studying the writings of such economic advocates like Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglas, Theodore Cross and others, Harry dedicated himself to making a national Black chamber a reality.
In 1991, he and his wife started the Hoosier Minority Chamber of Commerce in Indianapolis, one of the most segregated cities in the U.S., according to census data. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce opposed Alford’s efforts of starting the organization.
Yet, in two years, the Hoosier chamber had become a successful model of a national Black chamber. The level of construction, services and products increases among Black business. Chamber members included five law firms that were “Red Book” candidates – or nationally recognized bond counsel, five construction companies capable of multi-million dollar bids, CPA’s, realtors and many other professions.
Dorothy R. Leavell, publisher of the Chicago and Gary Crusader newspapers, recalled her impression of Alford when she first met him.
“I had a great relationship with him in Indiana when he served in the cabinet of former Gov. Evan Bayh. I went into a meeting with him expecting resistance and I was met with agreement and a solution that led the way for Indiana Black newspapers to do business with the state,” she reflected.
The couple founded the National Black Chamber of Commerce on May 23, 1993. They soon moved the newly established national chamber from Indianapolis, Indiana, to Washington, DC. The first board chairman was the former Assistant Secretary of Labor, Dr. Arthur Fletcher, the “Father of Affirmative Action.”
“When he started the National Black Chamber, our relationship expanded to include me as a board member of NBCC and when I was chairman of the National Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation he served with distinction on our board. He was always eager to help The Black Press ‘as a business’,” Leavell said.
The chamber moved into its first brick and mortar building in September 1994 and had 14 branch chambers.
Alford has been responsible for opening doors that have led to billions of dollars in new business for Black owned firms throughout the nation. His relentless energy and advocacy is helping forge international business opportunities for African Americans and emerging entrepreneurs in Africa, the Caribbean, South America and the rest of the African Diaspora. For this work he was formally named a Cultural Ambassador by the US State Department.
His efforts has also helped in the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“When President George Bush asked Harry Alford to assist him with a strategy to identify any Black owned businesses remaining in the Hurricane Katrina impact zone and a plan for helping them survive, he selected the right man,” said Arnold Baker, president of Baker Ready Mix, LLC.
Alford brought a fresh perspective and renewed vision that nothing was impossible and held the White House accountable for making available unfettered access to the Corps of Engineers, HUD, the Department of Commerce, and DOT for the nation’s greatest rebuild, according to Baker.
In 2001, President George W. Bush’s administration appointed Alford to be the U.S. Cultural Ambassador. The same year Bush appointed Colin Powell as secretary of state and Pat at de Stacy Harrison as the deputy secretary of state.
“Pat brought us in and appointed me a ‘cultural ambassador.’ That meant I was to travel abroad and develop positive relationships with non-governmental organizations.,” Alford wrote in a column in the Florida Courier.
Later that year, in November, Alford was elected to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. He served for many years and was the chair the Government Oversight and Consumer Affairs Committee.
Alford also wrote columns for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, also known as The Black Press, which represents around 200 newspapers across the nation. His columns, called Beyond the Rhetoric, discussed issues surrounding minority business development, e-commerce, entrepreneurship and other economic issues, as well as politics, racism, civil rights and social justice. His columns have appeared several times in The Dallas Examiner, along with many Black newspapers across the country.
He also served on the served on the NNPA Foundation Board of Directors.
In 2013, he was inducted into the Oxnard High School Hall of Fame.
Most of the existing Black chambers derived from Alfred’s initiatives and influence over the years.
Now, the national chamber is the largest Black business organization in the world, consisting of regional organizations of chambers, chambers in eight countries in Africa, 11 chambers in the Caribbean, and five in Central and South America.
Black chambers were also established in London and Paris under Alford’s leadership. In addition to coordinating this global operation, he spoke before Congress on behalf of Black business, often several times a month.
“Today, the lessons learned and visioning processes that Harry and Kay brought to fruition are responsible for tens of billions of dollars in small business inclusion programming which are now the basis for every disaster relief program. They not only made history in New Orleans but designed the base principals for recovery programs now implemented across the globe,” Baker said.
As word spread of Aford’s death, members of the NBCC Board of Directors sent in condolences, including Charles H. DeBow III, the board’s executive director.
John Harmon, the president of one of the most successful Black chambers in New Jersey, said that Alford and his wife guided him through many business initiatives. He also said it was due to Alford’s influence that he served on the NBCC board and the USCOC board.
“Harry Alford was the Godfather of Black Chambers in the United States and from his Washington, D.C. headquarters, gave Black business a seat at the table for over 28 years,” stated Larry Ivory, NBCC board chairman and president of the Illinois State Black Chamber of Commerce, “Harry and Kay’s legacy will live on as we continue moving the National Black Chamber of Commerce’s agenda forward.”
Robyn H. Jimenez/The Dallas Examiner contributed to this report.