At first glance, John Harmon’s road to founding the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey (AACCNJ) might seem to have been coinicdental or by happenstance. However, a closer look reveals how each step on his journey and in his life’s work was divinely ordered.
Raised in Trenton, NJ, Harmon grew up as one of seven children. Their father was a truck driver; their mother worked in a factory. John marveled at his father’s ability to run a small trucking company, despite the lack of formal education. “I wanted to be a mechanic,” he reminisced. “When I graduated high school I worked for Firestone, then a Ford dealership. I worked on cars and trucks and I loved it.” Enrolling in college wasn’t on his radar, but little did Harmon know God was working behind the scenes to craft a lifelong career and purpose.
Harmon found a social life at Mercer Community College. Though not a student, there were parties, gatherings, games, and other pursuits to keep a young man occupied when he wasn’t working on cars. “Three Black ladies approached me at Mercer and kind of coerced me into enrolling in college,” he chuckled. “Once the light bulb came on I was so excited and I went back to the dealership and shared with some of the folks there that I was going to go to college. I thought they would embrace and encourge me; they laughed at me.”
As the saying goes, “He who laughs last, laughs best” and Harmon literally laughed all the way to the bank. After completing his associate degree at Mercer, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University. “It gave me great joy to go back and tell them I had graduated,” he beamed. From there it was on to managing residential real estate at The Bowery Savings Bank and third party mortgage loans at Chemical Bank. He also established the Affordable Housing Loan Program at Chemical.
Shortly thereafter, Harmon founded his own transportation company, Harmon Transport. Being a small, Black-owned business owner led him to join the Metropolitan Trenton African American Chamber of Commerce. “My role and official title was chaplain; I prayed at every meeting,” he recalled. Prayers are powerful and God does answer them, so two years later when the Chamber president resigned to spend more time managing his own business, Harmon assumed the position. “I became president by default.”
In the more than thirty years since then. Harmon has founded both the New York State Black Chamber of Commerce and the African American Chamber of Commerce of NJ. He serves as chairman of the former and president of the latter, as well as holding seats on several boards and memberships in various national organizations. His life’s work is rooted in helping Black business owners succeed.
Throughout 2020 and 2021, Harmon and the AACCNJ have dedicated their efforts to helping New Jersey Blackowned businesses weather the COVID-19 pandemic and more recently, the devastation of Hurricane Ida. “We’ve always had these underlying conditions like heart disease and diabetes, so the pandemic exacerbated those situations and made them worse,” Harmon explained. “From an economic standpoint, we have the highest poverty in New Jersey, the highest unemployment, homeownership is about 35%, we have low median income, and our net worth averages $5,900 versus $315,000 for whites. And a significant number of Americans don’t even have $400 for an emergency.”
In addition to the recent havoc of the pandemic and the storm, Harmon reminds us of the historic discrimination and financial challenges we’ve faced as African Americans. “We’re just barely surviving, not withstanding all we’ve contributed to the greatness of America—the 400 years of free labor we gave during slavery. We got out of slavery and were immediately faced with Jim Crow and segregation and had to fight for the Civil Rights Act. We’re not a part of New Jersey’s economy or the U.S. economy in an equitable way.”
That’s where Harmon and the AACCNJ are invaluable resources. “The AACCNJ is your conduit to resources, be it access to capital, public or private sector contracts, or technical assistance. Resources, opportunity, and information are what we provide to our constituents. We let them know when there are contract or job opportunities, or even grants.” He continued, “When the pandemic occurred, the state offered a lot of resources and you need someone to disseminate information. We have relationships with the highest levels of federal, state, county, and municipal government, as well as corporations and financial services institutions. So we represent Black businesses in that ecosystem to make sure we are positioned to do the best we can to get our businesses to the highest levels possible.”
There’s much work to be done and the AACCNJ is rising to meet the challenge. They’ve hired four people during the pandemic and now employ 12 full-time and several part-time workers. “There’s tremendous demand for engagement and many of New Jersey’s largest corporations are members including financial institutions, utilities, telecoms, and others. Through these relationships we hope to mitigate the underperformance of the Black community.”
The AACCNJ boasts job listings and contracts, as well as their own radio and TV shows. “These things we have for the benefit of Black people in New Jersey,” said Harmon. “We’re always thinking of the 1.2 million Black people in New Jersey.”