The Oldest Black-Owned Business in the United States

The Oldest Black-Owned Business in the United States was founded in Columbus, Ohio. The Ward Transfer Line is the country’s oldest continuously operating African-American business. William S. Ward established the company in 1881 as a moving company, and it began with three employees and a single wagon to transport items.

John T. Ward and Catherine Moss Ward

John T.Ward. Photo Credit: Columbus Public Library Archives
Catherine Moss Ward was the wife of John T. Ward

John T. Ward was the father of William S. Ward.  He was born in Richmond, Virginia, on March 19, 1820. Ward emigrated from Virginia to Columbus in 1836, and later met Catherine Moss, an Underground Railroad operator in Central Ohio.  The couple met while growing up on a farm near the National Pike (now known as Main Street). They married in 1838 and had 12 kids.

Ward was a free man who purchased his own farmland and worked as the janitor at the old City Hall. His farm was in what is now known as Whitehall. Once an underground railroad station, that house still exists today but is no longer in the Ward family’s possession.  He eventually settled in the Reynoldsburg area.

The Business 

Ward Transfer Line was founded in 1881 by John T. Ward and his son, William in Columbus, Ohio.

In 1859, the Wards started working on

Photo Credit: Columbus Public LIbrary Archives

his “business plan” for a moving company.  He hauled goods and merchandise from warehouses and storage yards to commercial sites and markets under contract for wholesales.

Ward’s son, William, worked in the moving business after the war and later left to work for the Union Transfer and Storage Company.  He navigated the tanks and rose through the ranks to become a teamster, work supervisor, foreman, and rate clerk.

In 1899, they add “storage” and changed the name to E.E. Ward Transfer and Storage Company, after Edgar Earl Ward, John T. Ward’s grandson who was running the business at the time.

The company began using motor vehicles in the early 1900s, eventually phased out their last horse-powered moving team in 1921. By 1925, it had grown to include more commercial clients, such as the Steinway Piano Company, for whom it transported nearly 900,000 pianos.

The Underground Railroad

Ward became involved in the Underground Railroad as a young man in the 1840s, hiding fugitive slaves on his farm outside Columbus in Whitehall.

John T. Ward and his family assisted slaves fleeing to Canada through the Second Baptist Church in Columbus. He used his horses and wagon to assist slaves in escaping to freedom by establishing a network of hiding places and safe houses.

The Second Baptist congregation was afraid of losing their jobs if they became involved, so Ward and James Preston Poindexter left and founded the Slavery Resistant Church to assist runaways. They all returned to Second Baptist after the Civil War, where Poindexter served as pastor for forty years.

Maintaining the Legacy

The Oldest Black-Owned Business in the United States was run by Edgar Earl, who was born in 1881. Edgar Earl Ward, the youngest, took over the business in 1899 when he was 18 years old. There were a lot of changes under Edgar Ward’s leadership.

Edgar Earl Ward Photo credit: Columbus Public Library Archives

In the early 1950’s Eldon Ward, the great-grandson of John T. and Catherine Ward took over as manager. However, there was no succession plan when Eldon Ward decided to retire in 1996.  He moved to Phoenix, and he had no children of his own.

The current owner, Brain Brooks’ father, was the attorney for E.E. Ward for 20 years, and Eldon

 

 Ward was Brooks’ godfather. So, when it appeared that the business would be leaving the Ward family’s hands, Brooks’ mother begged her son to help keep the E.E. Ward legacy alive.

He was passionate about its long history and wanted to preserve it.
In April 2001, he bought the company with a business partner, Otto Beatty, for an undisclosed sum.

E.E. Ward, now located at 2235 Southwest Blvd. in Grove City, has remained the oldest continuously operating black-owned business in the United States, according to the US Department of Commerce and mentioned in the 2003 Congressional Record.

The company has survived the Great Depression, two World Wars, the Great Recession, and the presidency of 25 different presidents. Today they are the Oldest Black-Owned Business in the United States.

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