We’ve Come Too Far to Turn Back Now
By Peppur Chambers
To African Americans emerging from 250 years of slavery, the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Oklahoma was a source of great pride. In the early 20th century, Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” as Greenwood Avenue came to be known, represented Black people’s true potential in the United States.
Greenwood Avenue was home to Black-owned restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, clothing stores, movie theaters, barbershops and salons, a library, pool hall, and nightclubs. Its Black doctors, lawyers, dentists, newspapers, schools, banks, and hospitals served the prosperous enclave.
In 1921, white rioters set the 35 square blocks comprising Greenwood ablaze and rampaged through the streets for two days. Hundreds of people died and over 10,000 Black people were left homeless. Greenwood’s residents and businesses never recovered. The burning of that flourishing specifically, they mean to see the barriers that prevent Blackowned firms from accessing capital and wealth removed.
As the nation mourns and marches for social justice, Jacob Walthour, Jr. and Carrie Pickett fight for economic justice. Equipped with full knowledge and appreciation of their forebear’s bitter and sweet histories, they stand up to today’s Wall Street to expose the players and practices that have committed one of the most blatant and discriminatory acts ever seen on that iconic street. In the words of at least one New Jersey elected official, the treatment Blueprint received amounts to “a modern-day economic lynching that has left a stain in the eye of the State of New Jersey.”
The successful financiers trace their entrepreneurial roots back to successful family-owned businesses, not unlike those that lined the iconic Greenwood Avenue in Tulsa. One might say their drive for success is in their blood.
Walthour comes from humble beginnings. Raised in tiny Hudson, New York about 35 miles south of Albany, he is the son of a welder and a laundress, neither of whom finished high school. “My parents were a real, live, American success story. I had no excuse,” he shared. “They started with nothing but teamwork and hard work. Their restaurant opened when Walthour was 13 years old and thrived for thirty-five years—the longest-standing Black-owned business in the city, and possibly all of upstate New York. “My parents gave me a strong sense of how powerful a Black business could be.” They were his blueprint.
Pickett came from similar roots. Her grandfather owned a restaurant and one of the first African American-owned Chevrolet dealerships in Oakland, California. “Oakland in the 1950s and early 60s, like Greenwood, was an insular and thriving Black community,” Pickett explained. Black folks did for themselves and, Pickett says, were raised with a “sense of doing for yourself.” With a Ph. D. in Cellular Biology from UCLA, her father led research in new drug discovery, forging into the unknown and finding success in undiscovered realms. Pickett’s exposure to his work gave her an early window into risk-taking. “My father was one of few Black men in his field. His success was inspirational and a driver behind my willingness to pursue a career in a field where not many people look like me,” she revealed.
Pickett and Walthour first joined forces in 2012 when they joined Cowen & Company to pursue a passion for investing in women and minority firms. They needed resources. Cowen & Company, a storied investment banking boutique, was the answer. Walthour explained, “We knew we would need deep resources to build our plan. The credibility of having a white partner in the investment industry can make a big difference in accessing capital. We jokingly call it the ‘Good Housekeeping seal of approval.’”
After over a year at Cowen, the two decided to go out on their own. “We wanted to be in the front seat of the car. We both wanted to drive and be responsible for getting to our destination,” Walthour explained.
Pickett and Walthour built a name in the industry, a factor crucial to raising a significant amount of capital when New Jersey failed to deliver on their promise. Walthour admits, “We had the who’s who of successful asset managers agreeing to back us. Black Wall Street supported us.” Regarding their angel investors, Walthour said, “Having these individuals express confidence in us was a big motivator. We now had other people’s money and the responsibility to get them their return.”
Raising $350 million for their first fund, Blueprint crossed the billion-dollar assets mark much faster than other minority firms leading to a nomination for Alternative Firm of the Year by HFM Investhedge. Placing in the top echelon of the Black-owned investment manager universe, they accomplished a fantastic feat, even surpassing expectations of what white-owned asset managers could do. They had identified a market niche and prepared for success. Not until being in business a full year did the company go to investors. Blueprint was ready for prime time.
Based on meticulous research, the firm developed a program capable of saving public pension funds millions of dollars based primarily on fees management. They named this structural alternative FAIR. Their lawsuit claims the co-conspirators, New Jersey and BlackRock, stole the program and even used the Blueprint program’s name. The State of New Jersey, BlackRock Alternative Advisors, and Cliffwater LLC are formidable opponents. The stage is set for a classic David and Goliath battle in the legal amphitheater.
Filed in federal court in New Jersey on June 22, 2020, the complaint depicts a narrative in which Blueprint turned over its confidential information and trade secrets to the State of New Jersey’s Division of Investment and expected to receive funding of $500 million. However, the agency gave the information to BlackRock, but told Blueprint because the committee “is not a fan of investing in minority-owned firms,” the proposal was never presented. Later, Blueprint learned that in order to be approved, staff would have to “cleanse their materials of any mention of their Black-owned status.”
When Blueprint complained and asserted their rights, the agency issued threats and retaliated against them, delaying the processing of their contracts and refusing to communicate or meet with the firm to discuss investment ideas. Multiple news sources have reported the defendants’ claim that Blueprint has no evidence of wrongdoing. Walthour strongly disagrees. In a letter to investors and industry relationships he states, “Despite the defendants’ claims of no merit, I am confident; and the evidence is just part of the reason.” The letter quotes an email from a former BlackRock employee to a BlackRock senior executive, obtained by Blueprint. “These back room deals negatively impacting African Americans happen all the time,” read the email. “I experienced the brunt of them many times but did not complain just to keep the peace in a racially lopsided environment. The truth will prevail.”
Pickett noted: “Many people see African Americans on Wall Street and covet the access, wealth, and opportunity they think we have. What is less understood is this industry has not made the progress necessary to truly afford Black people limitless opportunity. We do not want opportunity for a few; we want it for all.“
Blueprint believes its litigation is already having an impact. According to Walthour, Blueprint delivered a demand letter to BlackRock alleging discrimination and told the firm it was filing a complaint on June 22. BlackRock CEO Larry Fink announced on the very same day that the Black workforce at the firm will grow by 30% in four years. Walthour further states, “BlackRock is looking to win the hearts and minds Blacks because of the climate around Black Lives Matter. If he really cared, he would take care of those Blacks he already employs.”
Jacob Walthour says BlackRock has not gone far enough, and regarding Blueprint, the duo concurs they have gone too far to turn back. “This is a landmark case,” stated Carrie Picket. “It is much bigger than Blueprint. We must forge on.”
Surely in their struggle, others will find hope, inspiration, and the will to push forward.