Soul Food Market will be a top rate grocery store, completely owned and operated by Black people. Soul Food Market, however, will not be the first of its kind. Well before the Civil War started, Samuel T. Wilcox built a grocery empire with annual sales in excess of $4 million, in today’s dollars. Many tried to discourage Wilcox from going into the industry, telling him that, “nobody would buy groceries of a colored man.” Wilcox proved them all to be tremendously and historically wrong.
Wilcox had been a boat steward on the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. He managed to save money and gain experience in trading, as well as keeping accounts. In 1850 he built a wholesale grocery store in Cincinnati, at Broadway and Fifth Street. Wilcox had also established a pickling and preserving business. He soon emerged as a pioneer, one of the first to establish high quality grocery stores that offered only premium brands of hams, dried fruit, soaps and other items. The quality of his merchandise catered to and attracted mostly wealthy customers. Wilcox’s business expanded rapidly and soon he became “the largest dealer of provisions in the city.”
For Black entrepreneurs, the the philosophy must be “Buy Black, sell to everyone.” Wilcox most certainly lived out that creed. In addition to his operation in Cincinnati, he eventually built up a large wholesale market in New York, Boston, and Baltimore. Wilcox managed to do all of that, while maintaining a local retail trade among elite white families. Within just a few years of him starting his business, Wilcox was doing around $140,000 in sales, equivalent to over $4 million today, adjusted for inflation. Wilcox leveraged his success to invest heavily in real estate and he was rewarded handsomely. At his death, he was worth $60,000, or close to $2 million.
Many told Wilcox not to try the grocery business. Wilcox said, however, “I wished to show, if I could, that colored people could do something besides being barbers.” Samuel T. Wilcox did far more than cut hair, he literally supplied the goods that sustained cities.
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