February 25, 2021
The Oldest Black-Owned Business in America: E.E. Ward Moving & Storage
This Black History Month, we’ve been reflecting on the impact of America’s oldest running Black-owned business, with almost 140 years of moving under their belts: E.E. Ward Moving & Storage!
Operating since 1881, the moving company started out with only two horses and a wagon. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Congressional Black Caucus recognized E.E. Ward Moving & Storage as the oldest African-American-owned business in America.
The Underground Railroad
From the 1840s to the late 1850s, John T. Ward helped slaves escape to freedom through his role as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. His home in Columbus, Ohio, ‘The Ward House’, was known as one of the main pit stops on the historic path to freedom. When the Civil War started, Ward began working on government contracts to haul equipment for the U.S. Army.
In 1881, John and his son, William Ward, founded the Ward Transfer Line, a wagon transportation business operating in downtown Columbus. By 1889, they had introduced storage and the name had changed to E.E. Ward Transfer and Storage Company. Edgar Ward, John’s youngest son, had taken over management of the company which solidified E.E. Ward as a true family moving business.
The Shift to Motorized Moving
As the company entered a new century, it adapted to the impending industrial changes. By 1914, the shift towards motorized transportation had begun and the Wards implemented motorized moving, officially retiring their last horse by 1921.
In 1945, nearly a century after John helped countless slaves gain freedom through the Underground Railroad, his grandson, Eldon Ward, joined the family business where he remained as Chairman Emeritus until he retired in 1996. Over the years, skilled business leader Eldon served on the boards of more than 40 organizations in the community.
“It is estimated that the E.E Ward moved 900,000+ pianos and hundreds of voting machines in Columbus, Ohio.”
In the 1950s, the E.E. Ward Company won two major contracts that allowed them to make a huge impact in Columbus, Ohio. The first was from the legendary piano company, Steinway & Sons. The second was for the Franklin County Board of Elections which required E.E Ward to handle the movement of hundreds of voting machines around Columbus. Throughout the decades, E.E. Ward ‘performed moves for schools, museums, libraries, business, and homes’.
Building A Modern-Day Moving Company
When Eldon retired in 1996 there were no children to hand the reins to, and no plan in place to keep the Ward legacy alive. Eldon was godfather to the son of his long-time attorney, and in 2001 his godson, Brian Brooks, bought the company with business partner Otto Beatty. This meant that the Ward legacy could live on and the company could remain as close to a family business as possible.
When Brooks and Beatty officially took over business operations in 2003, the company was averaging $300,000 annually with a handful of employees, four trucks, and four trailers. Their first priority was to bring the company into the modern age by updating technology and infrastructure.
They swapped out old dial phones for modern equipment and hired a payroll company. They implemented an aggressive marketing strategy by utilizing the Yellow Pages and trade magazines while sending postcards and fliers to realtors. Just as they had done decades earlier, the E.E Ward company was once again adapting to changing times.
In 2014, Beatty left the business and Brooks continued operations with his wife, Dominique Brooks. By 2019, E.E. Ward was averaging over $5 million annually, employing over 50 full time workers, with up to 20 more during peak moving season, and focusing on residential and business moving and storage.
Today, Brian manages company operations while Dominique handles branding and marketing. Brian and Dominique have focused on carrying on the Ward family’s commitment to positive social change. One of their efforts is sponsoring of “The Laps for Learning” annual fundraiser which raises money for underprivileged youth to take swimming lessons.
The Far-Reaching Impact of Movers
The impact of E.E. Ward’s legacy does not go unnoticed. The company has persisted for more than a century because of its excellent customer service, its ability to adapt, and its commitment to helping the local community. The company has created countless job opportunities and improved the quality of life for Americans since the early 1840s. Employees of E.E. Ward often remain with the company for decades – several have been working at E.E. Ward for more than 30 years.
The moving industry has always been about far more than simply transporting items and people to different places. It’s about starting new ventures, creating wonderful experiences, and continuously adapting to the changing times. This is something which rings particularly true during the ongoing pandemic of the early 2020s – 140 years after E.E Ward was founded.
Black-Owned Moving Companies Today
At Oncue, 40% of our customer base are immigrant or minority-owned businesses and we are proud to partner together as these companies continue to impact the lives of Americans everywhere. Oncue customer Verna Owens, owner of Dallas-based Veterans R Moving Us, and Houston-based A1 Military Movers, is honored to be a Black-owned moving company in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a privilege and honor that he does not take lightly.
“I tip my hat to E.E. Ward, having a 100+ year legacy is a dream for Veterans R Moving Us. Creating generational wealth is a philosophy I believe in and work every day to accomplish.”
Similar to E.E. Ward’s philosophy of giving back to the community, Veterans R Moving Us also regularly gives back in the areas of disaster relief, disaster recovery, donating to underprivileged charities, and through various other philanthropic efforts. Today, moving company owners from coast to coast must continue to provide excellent customer service in order to see them through the years and decades to come. At both of his moving companies, Verna has set an extremely high standard for customer service.
“Like E.E. Ward, the necessity to offer time-tested customer service is still a constant need in this industry, and a gold standard when you’re a minority-owned business.”
For other minority-owned businesses, Verna’s advice is to always remain humble and grateful. Fall in love with the grind, and remember that although you are already at a disadvantage, that doesn’t have to be an excuse. A piece of advice he often shares with fellow entrepreneurs is to write your vision down, and keep the steps needed to reach your goals plain and simple. Instead of overcomplicating the path to success, setting your vision, dreams, and goals in the early days can help you hone in on your original idea and ensure that you continually work to make it a reality.
“Never lose that chip on your shoulder. We must always be 10 times better than the next man!”
This Black History Month, we celebrate not only the legacy of E.E Ward Moving & Storage, but the legacies that all Black-owned moving companies are building today.
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