In the article below historian Kathleen Thompson describes Taylor Electric Company, founded in 1922 and has the distinction of being the oldest continuously operating Black-owned business in Chicago and one of the oldest in the United States.
Taylor Electric Company is one of the oldest family-owned Black businesses in the United States. It is also Chicago’s oldest continuously operating Black-owned business and its history is intricately connected to that of the city itself.
Founder Sam Taylor came to Chicago from the coal mines of Alabama during the Great Migration, with a sixth-grade education and, possibly, a warrant out for his arrest for shooting the man who killed his brother. In Chicago, according to his son Rufus Taylor, he worked stoking coal for a railroad, running a saloon, and sweeping floors at Cuneo Press, a magazine publisher. He also began to help his neighbor, Black electrician Robert Patterson, doing electrical work at the Pullman Company. Taylor also acquired his first potential employee in young Charles Stewart, son of Annie Stewart, with whom he would live for some years. He treated the boy like a son and, later, an apprentice.
At about this time, Taylor saw an advertisement on the back of a magazine, possibly at Cuneo, for a correspondence course that promised training for becoming a licensed electrician. According to Charles Stewart, the company refused to send the course to a Black man, but a Greek-American friend stepped in and sent for the course under his own name. Sam Taylor took the course and got his electrician’s license in 1922, perhaps the first ever issued to an African American by the City of Chicago.
As Taylor Electric Company, Taylor installed doorbells and lights in the Motor Row District for neighbors like Blue Star Auto and Al Capone. He and Charles also did electrical work for Greer College, where Sam tried for two years to get Charles admitted as a student but was ultimately successful.
In the 1930s, Sam Taylor went head-to-head with the notorious “Umbrella Mike” Boyle, fighting for membership in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), local 134. The union turned him away, but he and Charles Stewart gathered a group of about fifty Black men all of whom were determined to become electricians. With the help of Congressman Oscar De Priest of Chicago, the first Black US member of Congress since 1901 and the first elected from a Northern congressional district, the group of Black electricians was awarded Charter 9362 which essentially allowed them to operate as the first Black electrical union. Mike Boyle decided to cooperate instead of competing and started using Charter 9362 members on projects on the South Side of Chicago.
Just before the United States entered World War II, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, President of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, put pressure on US President Franklin Roosevelt to desegregate defense industries. Roosevelt responded with Executive Order 8802. Issued in 1941, it demanded “the full and equitable participation of all workers in defense industries, without discrimination because of race, creed, color, or national origin.” It took some time for Local 134 to comply, but in 1943, Sam Taylor, Charles Stewart, and others from the Charter 9362 were admitted to the previously all-white union.
In the late 1940s Chicago’s early urban renewal policies forced Taylor Electric to move from its longtime location on the city’s South Side. Many Black businesses disappeared due to urban renewal but Taylor Electric was part of the tiny minority of displaced businesses that survived. The business continued to grow in the 1950s and became a rare union shop when other Black electricians continued to be denied union membership. Rufus Taylor, Sam’s eldest son, returned from service in Korea to start learning the business from the ground up. In 1969, he officially took over, alongside his older sister, Jessie Taylor Dinkins, who took charge of the Taylor Electric Company office, including accounts payable and payroll. Founder Sam Taylor died in Kalamazoo, Michigan on July 20, 1973.
Rufus Taylor shifted gears from his father’s model which had focused on continually doing the electrical work of small and medium-sized businesses. Instead, partly because of political changes in Chicago and state and national affirmative action policies, he began bidding on and winning large scale construction contracts. This strategic shift, however, meant becoming involved in the political struggles in Chicago around affirmative action. Having co-founded Black Contractors United in 1979, Rufus Taylor became an early supporter and friend of future Congressman and Chicago Mayor Harold Washington and was involved in much of the discussion and negotiation around that issue through the 1970s and 1980s.
Soon, Taylor Electric was working on major projects like the Sears Tower, the McCormick Place expansion, and the People Mover at O’Hare Airport. In the early 1990s Taylor Electric took over the electrical maintenance at what was then Comiskey Park (now Guaranteed Rate Field) and at Soldier Field.
The year 1995 could have been the end of Taylor Electric and for most family-owned businesses it would have been. Rufus Taylor was shot in a carjacking and later died of his injuries. The board of directors, unsure whether Taylor Electric could continue to maneuver in the turbulent the political and financial waters of Chicago’s construction industry without the towering figure of Rufus Taylor, was on the verge of closing the company.
That crisis, however, clearly demonstrated the character of the Taylor family and Taylor Electric. Kenny Dinkins, vice president and general superintendent of the company, and one of Sam Taylor’s grandsons, argued passionately before the board that, if his cousin Martha, Rufus Taylor’s eldest daughter, would quit her job in Atlanta and take over the helm at Taylor Electric, the two of them could run the company.
Martha was only 33 years old at the time and had never cut a wire or bent a pipe. Moreover, she was a woman in a business where few women had yet achieved positions of leadership. But the board of directors took Kenny Dinkins’ advice, and Martha became president of Taylor Electric, now a $4 million-a-year company. Martha Taylor’s twenty-year tenure as president of Taylor Electric coincided with Chicago’s unprecedented residential building boom, and, because of her leadership, Taylor Electric continued to grow. In 2015, when she retired as president, the company had annual revenues of $12 million making it one of the most successful Black-owned businesses in Chicago.
Rufus Taylor’s descendants have continued to run the company from 2015 to the present. Kendra Dinkins continues to serve as president and CEO, and her sister, Karen Michele Dinkins, is executive vice president and COO. This partnership has continued to demonstrate the astuteness and toughness shown by their predecessors. Kendra Dinkins has served as the president of the Federation of Women Contractors and was inducted in 2022 into the Electric Association Hall of Fame.
According to the Bureau Annual Business Survey, of the United States Census Bureau, less than 4 percent of Black-owned businesses in 2018 had any paid employees, and the average number of paid workers in employer firms was nine. Taylor Electric Company has about 100 employees. The average annual revenue of Black-owned employer firms in 2020 was just under $1 million, and the average annual revenue of Black employer businesses that were more than 16 years old was $1.06 million. In 2017, Taylor Electric’s annual revenue reached $15 million. Because of the family’s strength, unity, and flexibility, Taylor Electric Company, now a century-old business, continues to grow.