By Rachel Jones Williams
This article originally appeared in Pennsylvania Heritage Magazine
Volume XXXVI, Number 2 - Spring 2010
Cumberland Willis Posey Sr., Entrepreneur Photo from Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory (1910)
Cumberland Willis Posey Sr. (1858-1925) never let his circumstances define him; instead, he turned them into opportunities--not just for himself but also for his community. Born on August 30, 1858, to former slaves Elizabeth Willis Posey and Alexander Posey, he grew up in Port Tobacco, Maryland. His mother died when he was seven years old, and his father, a minister, moved the family to Virginia. This move was significant for Posey because it introduced him to the commerce created by waterways. His first job as a deck sweeper on a ferry boat allowed him to travel regularly between Virginia and Ohio.
The job also provided him a valuable education on boating and how boats and ferries operate. He was interested in the machinery and mechanisms of the vessels, as well as the rank and duties of the staff. He began studying the mechanics in hopes of becoming an engineer. Eventually, he earned the position of stroke engineer. The stroke engine powers the boat, and the stroke engineer is skilled in the mechanics of the engine, allowing him to operate, monitor, and repair it. He parlayed this opportunity into a position as an engineer on the Dick Henderson out of Ohio. Posey was not satisfied with merely being an engineer--he wanted to be a licensed engineer. A license indicated a body of knowledge in boat mechanics and allowed for better wages, in addition to credibility. He applied for a government license as a second engineer. Because of his color, Posey had difficulty obtaining it. He fought long and hard and in 1877 he received a second engineer license. He continued to excel, eventually becoming a chief engineer, or captain. He is believed to be the first African American to receive an engineering license in the United States.
Family and Foundation
As the river took him to different locations, his desire to succeed brought him wealth. His fortune did not come quickly or easily--it took ingenuity, effort, and the right companion. In Angelina Stevens he found that partner. A native of Athens, Ohio, she taught school for several years before marrying Posey in 1883. She was wife, mother, and the foundation for their family. In 1892, the couple moved from Ohio to Homestead, Allegheny County, located on the Monongahela River, just southeast of Pittsburgh.
Angelina Stevens Posey--who eventually became known as Anna--did not resume teaching, but concentrated on raising their three children, Beatrice, Seward, and Cumberland Jr., supporting her husband, and working in the community. Her intellect and standing in Homestead greatly aided her husband. A member of numerous organizations and service clubs, she was remembered for her work in the community when she died, at the age of fifty-five, on August 20, 1917.
Two years later, in 1919, Posey married Bessie D. Page, also a resident of Homestead.
Engineering a Life of Prosperity
Cumberland W. Posey Sr.'s affluence enabled the entrepreneur and his family to live in a commodious residence on East Thirteenth Street in Homestead, Allegheny County. Photo from Pennsylvania Negro Business Directory (1910)
While his first wife established herself in social circles, Posey established himself in commercial circles. After earning his chief engineer license, he began building boats and became known as Captain C. W. Posey or "Cap" Posey. Posey, who wanted to be captain of his own boat and eventually his own fleet, founded the Posey Steamboat Company to build them and transport goods. His boats were built specifically for use in the booming bituminous (soft) coal industry of western Pennsylvania. During his career, he supervised the building of forty-one boats. Posey employed large numbers of men through his many ventures, and his obituary, which appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier on January 13, 1925, states it was as many as one thousand. Established as a successful businessman, he turned his attention to the raw materials being transported along the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela rivers. The natural choice was coal.
Coal was a tremendous resource in Pennsylvania's economy. As general manager of the Delta Coal Company, he headed the operations of the company and further established himself as a business man. It was the establishment of the Diamond Coke and Coal Company that secured Posey's future. His association with this lucrative company launched his foray into the world of the wealthy. Posey's business acumen helped him become the wealthiest African American and one of the wealthiest men in Pittsburgh.
He did not rest on his laurels but continued to go forward with other business ventures. The Diamond Coke and Coal Company, later the Diamond Coal Company, supplied coal to companies such as the United States Steel Company. Posey was a contemporary of Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) and in some ways, Posey's life paralleled Carnegie's. Both men came from meager beginnings and worked their way to wealth and stature. Both men utilized natural resources to earn their living: Carnegie in steel, Posey in coal and boats. Both men were community-oriented, donating time and money in their respective areas of interest.
Posey chose his business ventures carefully and was cautious not to overextend himself. He managed the company that supplied the coal and the transportation to move the product to the customer. His understanding of business and fiscal operations were useful when he dabbled in the world of banking with the Douglas Land and Investment Company and as a director of the Modern Savings and Trust Company.
Investments and Returns
Not one to let an opportunity pass him by, he invested in the Pittsburgh Courier, a small newspaper established by Nathaniel Edwin Harleston in 1910 which served the African American community. The editor of the Courier, Robert L. Vann (1879-1940), a newcomer to Pittsburgh, propelled the Courier into a national newspaper. Posey served as president of the newspaper for fourteen years, from its founding until 1924.
The Courier was not his only presence in the African American community. He followed his wife, Anna's lead and participated in many organizations. Posey served as a member of the African American chapters of the Freemasons, True Reformers, Knights of Pyththias, Odd Fellows, and Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). He also served as a trustee or director for many organizations, including the YMCA and the Warren Methodist Episcopal Church.
Some of his greatest community contributions came through the Loendi Social and Literary Club. The club occupied a three-story building at Wylie and Fullerton streets in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The club's membership was made up of affluent African American businessmen who had founded it to help the surrounding community. As president of the Loendi Club for three years, Posey promoted the group's mission of community improvement and literacy. The African American elite frequented the club and black celebrities often went there to enjoy jazz. The Loendi Club also sponsored football and basketball teams. Its baseball team, the Loendi Big Five, was one of the most successful in the Commonwealth. Among its most talented players was Cumberland "Cum" Posey Jr. (1890-1946).
The younger Posey was a remarkable athlete. He played football and basketball for the Loendi Club, as well as for Holy Ghost College, now Duquesne University. In 1911, he began playing baseball for the Homestead Grays as a centerfielder and within a short period of time, became owner. The Homestead Grays was a semi-professional baseball team which primarily consisted of African American steelworkers. The team eventually joined the American Negro League and change the face of American baseball forever.
Cum Posey was able to purchase the Homestead Grays with the assistance of his father, who also enjoyed sports. The senior Posey did not live to see the Homestead Grays in their greatest days as champions of the game. On June 5, 1925, the "Commodore"--as he was often called--succumbed to illness and died.
Cumberland W. Posey Sr. was buried with full Masonic honors after living a life of dignity, honor, and achievement. His varied business enterprises provided jobs to many and funded literacy programs for African Americans in the Pittsburgh area. He wore many hats but most distinctively that of a captain.
Rachel Jones Williams, a resident of Harrisburg, is a historian, author, and museum professional. A graduate of Elizabethtown College and the Cooperstown Graduate Program in History Museum Studies, she has created exhibits for the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg. Her articles have appeared in the African American National Biography and Pennsylvania Heritage.