After much litigation, since his wallet was missing and there was neither suicide note nor proof that he had purposefully made the jump, Mr. Wilson Sr.’s extremely generous insurance policy was paid in full. Grieving but with renewed determination “to build an economic empire in my father’s name,” Mr. Wilson Jr. finally had enough capital to convert The Reverie into reality.
“Mr. W. Jr. spent nine million dollars to turn the Midnight Mansion into the corporate offices of WIPE. If he had not been a Black man, he would have been recognized as the financial genius he is, years ago,” Maceo said.
Genius or not, like Henry Ford or J.C. Penny and other great self-made men, Mr. Wilson Jr. was a bitch to work for. You either did it his way or you didn’t do it at all. He knew what he wanted: Money. His employees knew what was expected of them: To help make him money.
Mr. Wilson Jr. made his money by adopting established magazine formats from the Luce family and forging them into new Negro publications in his own image.
Since the earliest Negro newspapers in the 1700s, the Black press served as an avenue for protest; first, as a call to end slavery, later as cry against Jim Crow laws and lynching. Back in the early 1940s when Woodcock Wilson Jr. and Woodcock Wilson Sr. started Colored Cavalcade, they broke with the Negro press tradition. Rather than always reacting to white oppression, Colored Cavalcade ran essays by Negro intellectuals and activists. When Mr. Wilson Jr. later began publishing Raven magazine three years later, he dictated that its format focus on Negro achievement. Raven and the other WIPE publications served as the antidote to the steady diet of bad news reported about Blacks in the white media.
Raven was miscegenation of print and photojournalism. There was more space dedicated to photography in the magazine than there was to text. Every edition of Raven was chockfull of stories about the first Black to achieve this and the first Black to accomplish that. It featured well-heeled and well-educated Negroes in black and white and color photos. The story didn’t matter nearly as much as the subjects who were always Black and beautiful. These people were succeeding against all odds; overcoming all obstacles. Their success was there for other Negroes to see, read and emulate. For those who were not quite as singularly successful, each month there was the Raven’s Spectacular Souls column, which featured seven Blacks that were hired or promoted to first positions by Fortune 500 corporations—firms that could then be approached by Mr. Wilson Jr. or his advertising sales director.
“Folks look at this building and Mr. W. Jr.’s wealth and take it all for granted,” Ernie said to me one day while I was in his office seeking advice on how to write a transition between paragraphs in a story I was working on. “It looks easy now, but it wasn’t always that way. Even after the man got circulation way up on Raven and Hep, he had trouble selling advertising. He couldn’t get past the secretaries in those castles in the sky.”
Ernie got up from his desk and walked past me. He looked out to make sure no was one in earshot. Just to be safe, he quietly shut his office door. “But, I don’t care what you think about him as a boss, the man is cunning when it comes to business. Mr. W. Jr. began finagling his way into becoming the first Black on one strategic corporate board after the next. He’d spend more than a year religiously attending meetings, not making any pitch whatsoever and generously donating. After a while, he’d become friendly with the CEOs on the board who ran big corporations. Soon, they began approaching him, asking, ‘Woody, are we advertising in your magazine?’ And, two or three months later,” Ernie said, “they were in.”
“Slick,” I said.
Ernie smiled in agreement.
My smile fell away as I thought about Mr. Wilson Jr., the boss, not the Black business pioneer. “But he’s such an asshole,” I said.
“If you think its rough around here now, you should have been here back in the days when he wasn’t rich and influential. He’d fire people coming and going,” Ernie said. “Sometimes he’d let go 20 employees at a time. You’d leave work for the weekend and a Western Union telegram would be waiting on you at home informing you that ‘your services are no longer needed. STOP. Don’t bother to return to WIPE on Monday to collect your personable possessions. STOP. They will be mailed to you at your place of residence. STOP.’”
“Heartless,” I said. Mr. Wilson Jr. had fired Ernie on two separate occasions, hiring him back a few weeks later both times.
“That’s why he’s where he is today.”
“How have you managed to take it all these years?”
“You’re young. You’re idealistic. You don’t fully understand what’s ahead for you. Either you bend or you break. Some choose not to bend. To stand tall. They end up literally or figuratively broken. I’ve chosen to bend so that I may choose my time to stand tall.”
“Isn’t that a choice we always have?”
* * * *