He started the business moving people to freedom on the Underground Railroad!
John T. Ward was a conductor in Ohio’s Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people in the South escape to freedom, The Columbus Dispatch reports. During the Civil War, he worked as a contractor, moving supplies and equipment for the U.S. Army to Camp Chase. Ward soon realized that those skills moving people and supplies could be useful in the business world and in 1881, he and his son William Ward launched their moving company, then known as the Ward Transfer Line. Before the end of the 19th century, the company was renamed E.E. Ward Transfer and Storage Co., after John T.’s grandson, Edger Earl Ward, who had taken over the business. What started with just two horses and a wagon has now grown into a 140+-year-old business. Today, the E.E. Ward Moving & Storage Co. is the oldest known continuously operating Black-owned business in the United States, as acknowledged by the U.S. Department of Commerce and recorded in the 2003 Congressional Record.
For 120 years, the moving and storage company was owned by members of the Ward family. Eldon Ward, the grandson of William, ran the family business from the mid-1940s until 1996 when he retired, becoming the last Ward family owner. Delores White, the niece of Eldon, operated as company CEO from 1996 until 2001, when the company was sold to the Brooks family. Today, it is owned by Brian Brooks and his wife Dominique, whose family also has strong ties to the Wards, Brian being Eldon’s godson.
“It was time [to sell]. My uncle was retired in Arizona, and I was no longer able to fully do my job because I had COPD-related health issues…In many ways, the company is still part of our family…We were never about getting rich and making a lot of money. It was simply about providing a living for the family, and the employees were considered as family, not just workers,” explained White.
White spoke fondly of the previous years under Eldon Ward, back when there was a gym facility for employees and the company’s main transport was moving pianos. Earlier records showed the moving company transported almost a million pianos for the Steinway & Sons piano company in their heyday.
“[Eldon] wanted to find ways to lift up people. He wanted to build up his business but also build up the community. So he was involved in so many organizations, like the United Way, American Red Cross and YMCA….He was a mentor…My family members were working there, and I loved to run through the warehouse and climb up and explore all the trucks. I never thought that I would work there myself one day…Back in those days, pianos were the center of entertainment in the home. You didn’t have TVs or radios,” said White.
Brooks takes pride in carrying on that rich legacy, expanding the company to include 60 to 100 employees seasonally and 12 to 15 long-haul trucks with another 10 serving the Midwest region. For Brooks, it’s about more than just being a Black-owned business, it’s a commitment to tradition and legacy.
“What’s amazing to me is to think about all the company has endured to stay in business. Two world wars, economic ups and downs, including the Great Depression, and now a second pandemic,” Brooks shared.
One employee, Jerome Davis, who has worked for E.E. Ward for more than three decades, spanning the Ward and Brooks eras, said Eldon Ward set the bar and Brooks has continued to meet the standard.
“Eldon was always someone you could talk to. He’d always say, ‘Leave your problems at home when you come to work.’ If you had a problem you needed to talk over, he was there for you. Eldon treated you not like an employee but like a friend or even a family member. Everyone wants a boss like that,” said Davis.
Davis has continued cultivating and nurturing that same workplace culture, opening a second office three years ago in Charlotte, North Carolina. His commitment to his customers is equally as important as his commitment to the company.
“There is a commitment to providing quality service to the customer they established over the years. Our history and legacy mean a lot, but ultimately, it’s the quality of service that keeps a company in business for more than a century…There are a large number of people moving from the Midwest to the South and Southeast region, so opening an office there made a lot of sense,” said Brooks.
Still Brooks has experienced his fair share of challenges in keeping John T. Ward’s legacy company up and running. Securing funding as a Black business owner has been specifically challenging and that coupled with the coronavirus pandemic was enough to break even the strongest of businesses, Brooks told Inside Edition. While legacy is one thing, that history doesn’t necessarily keep the lights on.
“It doesn’t help us keep going. It doesn’t always translate into dollars and cents, and not from a greed standpoint, but the reality is you need dollars and cents to meet a payroll. You need dollars and cents to pay your insurance and all those bills… We look at that legacy and we equate it to reliability. That E.E. Ward’s going to be here. E.E. Ward’s going to be somebody you can give your items to in New York and they’re going to end up in Atlanta…That legacy and power is bigger than my wife and I. We understand that, we respect it. But we see ourselves as gatekeepers, as people that keep it going,” explained Brooks.
Despite the obstacles he’s faced as a minority-owned business, Brooks said he is still inspired to keep it going, in honor of John T. Ward and all he had to endure. He knows that whatever his challenges with the business, they pale in comparison to where it started, transporting people to freedom on a horse-drawn wagon.
“The point is even though it’s 140 years later, I feel John T. Ward’s struggle…Challenges take on different shapes and sizes with the decade or with the era. The guys that ran this business decades before me, they had so many more struggles. They didn’t have the internet, they didn’t have gas powered or diesel powered vehicles. They didn’t have what we have right now…It was called the horse didn’t feel well that day, so they couldn’t go move something. I mean, that’s a struggle. That makes you want to quit, right?,” said Brooks.
It is that level of struggle that Brooks says inspires him, that makes him keep setting the business up for another 140 years, despite the hardships. During the pandemic, the company qualified for a Payment Protection Program (PPP) loan from the government, holding them over and allowing them to meet payroll for their employees. As the oldest Black-owned business in the U.S., he feels like the unique struggles for Black owners are what help them last so long and keep them resilient no matter what.
“Maybe we’re the best prepared for all this because we’re used to being harder than everybody else. We’re used to being told by five or 10 or 15 or 20 banks, ‘no.’ We’re used to going after 20 RFPs [Request for Proposals] and being told no. We’re used to that. So for us, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay. We know how to roll our sleeves up.’ That’s what we do,” Brooks said.
Thank you to John T. Ward and the entire Ward and Brooks families for 140 years of service! Because of you all, we can!
Meet John T. Ward, founder of the oldest Black-owned business in the U.S. Photo Courtesy of E.E. Ward Moving & Storage Co.