The Penalty For Success

San Francisco Bay Area Speaking Tour 2019

Elmore Bolling: Industrious Man Murdered for Being “Too Prosperous as a Negro”

The Elmore Bolling Foundation

Elmore Bolling may not have been able to read or write but he was a natural entrepreneur with an instinct for developing and expanding his network of businesses.

In 1931, Elmore Bolling started his livestock business in Lowndes County, Alabama and used the proceeds to buy a Model T Ford which he converted into a truck. Soon, he was making a living not only by raising livestock but also by hauling bone, kindling, scrap iron and tin from rural Lowndes County to Montgomery (town). As the business flourished, he bought a ton and a half truck, adapted it to carry passengers, and began transporting people to town to shop.

He was a deacon at Hopewell Baptist Church and on Sundays, he transported parishioners to various Lowndes County churches.

With the help of his wife, Bertha Mae Nowden Peterson Bolling, and their seven children, Elmore offered prepared foods and drinks for sale to his riders. Ice cream was a favorite of his clientele. His children made excellent ice cream crankers.

Though his children were very important to the operation of his businesses, he was ever mindful of the importance of education. Since plantation schools were in session only four months of the year, Elmore placed his oldest children, Louis and Elmore Jr., in school in town. They returned home every Friday to prepare the weekend Fish Fry, another side business of Elmore and Bertha’s.

Farmers hired Elmore to haul feed and animals to the stockyard to sell. As his reputation for reliability spread, many whites began to patronize him. Solid success in business allowed Elmore to buy his first tractor-trailer truck.

After purchasing the tractor-trailer, Elmore converted his original “short truck” into a “milk truck.” To create a needed income stream when cotton was out of season, Elmore provided cows to several sharecroppers. Every week day, Elmore’s drivers collected milk from sharecroppers and transported it to white-owned Southern Dairy in the town of Whittle. His sharecropper clientele worked hard toward earning the monthly “milk check.” On “check day,” they were delighted to use that money to shop in Montgomery (transported in Elmore’s passenger truck).

Elmore earned a reputation for being a philanthropist. People commented that, “the only way Elmore would not help you, is that you didn’t ask.” If a person did not have money, Elmore would let him or her ride free. And, if someone could not repay a loan, Elmore canceled the debt.

He employed 40 farm hands who grew cotton, corn, sugar cane, millet, and peanuts and raised hogs, cows, goats, geese, guinea and chickens. Elmore’s trucking business was so successful that he added a brand new tractor-trailer and hired more drivers. He was known to pay well--often better than the white farmers. He also provided a place for his employees to live. He often said, “as long as a man will work, he has a place to stay.”

At the height of his farming and trucking enterprise success, he was able to buy property and establish a multiple-use general merchandise store with a gasoline pump.

But certain whites determined that Elmore was “making more money that the average white man”. He was gunned down on December 4, 1947 within hearing distance of his family at home.

The white man arrested for the murder stated Elmore “insulted my wife on the phone” as the motive. He was never indicted.

"My father was actually killed because he was too prosperous as a negro," says Elmore youngest daughter, Josephine Bolling McCall. Her book, The Penalty for Success, reveals her discoveries of a time, a place, and a society that challenges us to rethink the reality of life for blacks and whites in a mid-20th century rural Southern community where whites used lynching to destroy competition from black business owners as part of a pattern of racial violence that terrorized African-Americans for generations.

"American history is full of stories of black people doing precisely what America says it wants of its citizens — being creative, enterprising and industrious, being self-respecting and self-sufficient — only to have white people destroy what they’ve built, impede their progress and erase their wealth. And those are not far-off stories: Those are also the stories of the living.... History doesn’t stay stuck in the time that it happens. That is only where it is born, after which it is alive and moving with us through time and space." NY Times columnist Charles M. Blow

To support the legacy of Elmore Bolling, please donate to The Elmore Bolling Foundation www.bollingfoundation.org