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Celebrating Black Trailblazers in Real Estate

2.22.2022 | Category: Homebuying

Updated on: 1.24.2024

Black History Month is celebrated every February to recognize the positive contributions and courageous achievements made by Black Americans.

Originally started in 1926 as a week-long observance, by 1976 it had grown to a month-long national celebration officially designated by every president since.

As real estate and mortgage professionals, it’s as important as ever for each of us to honor the many accomplishments of Black Americans and continue the work started by these great Black pioneers in the industry to protect the rights of Black home and property owners everywhere.

Biddy Mason, Real Estate Entrepreneur and Community Leader

Also known as Grandma Mason, Biddy Mason was once one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles. Born in 1818, she was enslaved when she made the trip West, first to Utah and then California. Released from her enslavement by a court judgement, Mason and her daughters settled in Los Angeles, where she worked as a nurse and midwife.

In 1866, she purchased her first home in Los Angeles, which quickly became a homestead for civic leaders and migrating settlers as well as the location of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church. This launched her investments in real estate, purchasing, construction and resale of properties. At the time of her death in 1891, her family was considered the richest in Los Angeles County, a distinction they held until the Great Depression in 1929.

Booker T. Washington, Founder of the National Business League

Booker T. Washington was born in 1856 into an enslaved family in Virginia. After emancipation, he moved with his family to West Virginia and received an education from Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute and attended college at Wayland Seminary. In 1881, Washington was the first leader of the new Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, founded for the higher education of Black Americans.

Washington was also one of the founders of the National Negro Business League, a professional business organization founded to promote the interest of African American business. It was the first advocacy association for Black national business trade organizations and helped other Black Americans start their careers in education, real estate and politics. It’s still in operation today as the National Business League.

Dorothy Height, Advocate for Racial Equality and Housing

Dorothy Height, a prominent civil rights activist and leader, played a pivotal role in addressing racial inequalities, including in housing. As the president of the National Council of Negro Women for over 40 years, she advocated for fair housing policies, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for Black Americans.

Height’s was so renowned for her work and unmatched knowledge in organizing, political figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Lyndon B. Johnson often sought her counsel. In 1989, she was honored with the Citizens Medal Award by President Ronald Reagan, recognizing her outstanding contributions. Later, in 2004, she received the prestigious Congressional Gold Medal in honor of her remarkable service. 

Hazel Johnson-Brown, Advocate for Veterans’ Housing Rights

Hazel Johnson-Brown, the first African American woman to become a general in the United States Army, dedicated her life to advocating for veterans' rights, including housing support. Her leadership extended to initiatives supporting veterans’ access to affordable housing and better living conditions.

Johnson-Brown, a career nurse and educator, recognized that access to stable, affordable housing wasn't just about shelter; it was integral to overall well-being. Understanding the correlation between adequate housing and health outcomes, she championed initiatives that aimed not only to secure housing for veterans but also to ensure that their living conditions positively impacted their health. 

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Activists for Fair Housing

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, renowned actors and activists, used their influence to advocate for fair housing and civil rights. Their involvement in various movements included speaking engagements, marches, and community organizing, contributing significantly to the fight against housing discrimination.

Close friends of Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson, and Martin Luther King Jr., the pair participated in the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Davis and Ahmed Osman delivered Malcolm X's funeral eulogy, reprised in Spike Lee's film "Malcolm X." Davis also delivered a moving tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a New York Central Park memorial following King's assassination in Memphis, Tennessee.

Philip A. Payton Jr., The Father of Harlem

Philip A. Payton Jr. was a real estate entrepreneur best known for renting properties in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood to African American families. He began his career as a porter and janitor, eventually working his way up to founding his own real estate firm.

In 1904, Payton chartered the Afro-American Realty Company, which bought apartment complexes and rented to Black families, among them families who had been evicted by the prominent Hudson Realty Company.

This strategy helped catapult the Afro-American Realty Company into a $1 million operation with annual rent receipts of over $100,000. While that company halted operations in 1908, Payton went on to start the Philip A. Payton Jr. Company, which continued to buy and manage real estate in Harlem for Black tenants.

Payton died in 1917 at the age of 41. The Philip A. Payton Jr. company continued to operate in his absence until 1922. During that time, it laid the foundation for the African American cultural and arts movement now known as the Harlem Renaissance.

Robert C. Weaver, First African American Cabinet Secretary

Robert C. Weaver, appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, became the first Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 1966. Weaver championed fair housing laws and urban development initiatives that aimed to provide equal housing opportunities for all Americans. Under Weaver's leadership, he led the implementation of groundbreaking initiatives aimed at tackling housing disparities and creating more accessible avenues for homeownership. 

Prior to his appointment, he served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet. In this position, Weaver wrote the U.S. Housing Program under Roosevelt, to provide financial support to local housing departments, as a subsidy toward decreasing the rent poor African Americans had to pay. The program decreased the average rent from $19.47 per month to $16.80 per month.

W.D. Morrison Jr., First President of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers

W.D. Morrison Jr. was a real estate broker and one of 12 founding members of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB). Founded in July 1947, NAREB was established in response to the National Association of Realtors’ ban on Black real estate professionals.

Since its founding, NAREB has played instrumental roles in the implementation of equal rights, fair housing, equal-opportunity and community-development legislation at the local, state and federal levels.

Its significant achievements include assisting with the creation of HUD in 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act in 1989 and establishing affordable housing goals for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in 1992.

William Byron Rumford, Housing Rights Advocate and State Representative

William Byron Rumford was born in 1908 and was the first African American elected to a state public office in Northern California. The policymaker authored Assembly Bill 1240, the Fair Housing Bill, to outlaw housing discrimination in California in 1963.

Despite the opposition of the California Real Estate Association, the Apartment House Owners Association, and the Chamber of Commerce, the bill passed the senate and was signed into law by Governor Edmund Brown. This law was incredibly influential across the country and helped shape what is now known as the Fair Housing Act.

Celebrating Their Legacy

While it’s important to celebrate these trailblazers who worked courageously for the rights of homeownership for Black Americans, it’s equally vital to honor their legacy by informing others in the Black community about the long-term value of owning a home, one of the surest ways to build generational wealth. Their stories echo the resilience, determination, and unwavering commitment these trailblazers had towards securing housing rights for Black Americans. 

Educating and empowering individuals about the significance of homeownership as a foundation for building generational wealth becomes a tangible way to honor the enduring contributions of these pioneers. 

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