Fort Worth’s First African-American Entrepreneur

What if I told you that there was an incredible entrepreneur, right here in Fort Worth, who was a trailblazer, an inspiration, and a guide to so many entrepreneurs after him? What if I told you that this man overcame incredible adversity and tragedies that we will never be able to understand or imagine? What if I told you this incredible man beat the odds and ‘made it’ in Fort Worth? No, I’m not talking about Amon Carter or some other big names you might know. I’m talking about John Pratt. Chances are you’ve never heard of him. Thanks to the archives of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, websites on local history, and some limited celebrations of his life accomplishments around town, we can reconstruct parts of his life and share his incredible story.  

Fort Worth Start-Telegram Sunday, October 30, 1949 that incorrectly states Pratt’s former owner was killed in the Civil War.

John Pratt (1841 – 1900, exact date of death unknown) was a slave of K.M. Van Zandt, a Tarrant County landowner, but was freed in 1865 and became Fort Worth’s first Black business owner and entrepreneur. Although there are varying accounts of Pratt’s personal history, we are using an article from the Fort Worth Star Telegram and this article as our primary sources. Pratt was a blacksmith by trade and set up his shop at the corner of Weatherford and Rusk (current day Commerce St.), caddy-corner to the Courthouse and just blocks away from what is now Sundance Square. Most of Pratt’s early customers were Black and he was initially not well-received by the White community until Van Zandt, who was considered a Confederate war hero, began taking his horse to Pratt’s shop. Following this Pratt began serving customers from both communities – certainly a rarity in Texas in the 1860s and a testament to his skills and personality.

Though Pratt was a former slave who could not read or write, and undoubtedly battled all manner of adversity and hardship throughout his life, he persevered and built a business that served everyone, embodying the spirit of entrepreneurship and the determination to build a more open society after the Civil War. Untold and uncelebrated stories like Pratt’s exist in communities all over the country and this has left a legacy of underrepresentation that lasts until today.  According to this article from Fortune, as of 2018, there had only been 34 Black women in the US who have raised over $1 million in venture capital funding. Fortunately, by 2020, that number had nearly tripled to 93 Black women. However, between 2018 and 2019, Black and Latinx female founders accounted for only 0.64% of total venture capital, while female-only founding teams raised 2.7% of the total venture capital. What’s more, according to this CNBC article, in 2020 Black and Latinx founders only raised $2.3 billion of venture capital funding, which is only 2.6% of the total $87.3 billion raised. 

Photograph of the Historic Wall at Fort Worth’s Intermodal Transportation Center, chronicling the African American Marketplace that was there from 1865 to 1940. The text underneath the mural reads “Fort Worth’s first African American businessman was John Pratt blacksmith. 1865-1876.” This mosaic and others depict Fort Worth’s early African-American history. 

No matter which statistics you read, it is clear that there remains a vast opportunity gap for entrepreneurs of color.  Harvard Business Review helps to explain the issue and offers remedies in this article, entitled, “A VC’s Guide to Investing in Black Founders.” Forbes also recently released a report on the funds that are investing in Black founders. But perhaps you’re looking for something more accessible and local? Look no further than Impact Ventures in Dallas, which provides a comprehensive suite of support, resources, and access to capital for early-stage growth companies in North Texas and nationwide targeted to minority entrepreneurs. Similarly, Founders First Capital provides revenue-based funding and business acceleration support to service-based small businesses located outside of major capital markets. For entrepreneurs seeking bank loans, there are numerous alternative lenders that have programs for first-time entrepreneurs; check out Better Business Bureau of Fort WorthPeopleFund,and LiftFund.  

Here at Sparkyard, we believe in providing the right resources at the right time, and that every entrepreneur should have access to the resources that can help their business startup or grow. You can request a Spark Plan to get a customized plan of action to help you wherever you are in your entrepreneurial journey. Check out our Resource Navigator and Growth Circuit Map to learn more.  

We are proud to shine the light on John Pratt and to celebrate his accomplishments as Fort Worth’s first Black entrepreneur. He and many other entrepreneurs of color left an indelible mark on this city’s history. As highlighted with Pratt’s story, Black entrepreneurs and other entrepreneurs of color have been underrepresented and neglected for far too long, and we at Sparkyard want to start to change the narrative. It is our job to make sure that all of the entrepreneurs who follow Mr. Pratt’s footsteps will have access to resources and opportunities so that they too can start businesses that will serve the whole community.  


This post is a collaborative effort by Marco Johnson, Sparkyard Network Builder and Trent Barron, an Intern at HSC Innovation Ecosystems.

About the Author

Marco Johnson is the Sparkyard Network Builder, a position funded by the UNTHSC. He is a Fort Worth resident and Global Citizen whose professional journey has led him to exotic, faraway locations including Eastern Europe, Central Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and the planet Neptune to name a few. He is skilled in entrepreneurial ecosystem building, impact investing, international agricultural development, private equity finance, and fine-tuning Weber carburetors. He is a Virgo and his spirit animal is a Tesla coil. All thoughts, views, and comments are his own and do not reflect the thoughts, views, or comments of The University of North Texas Health Science Center.

Trent Barron

About the Author

Trent Barron is a student intern for the Next department at The University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth. Trent is a Fort Worth native, but is a fourth year student at the University of Georgia, pursuing a BA in Cognitive Science, with a Minor in Business, a Certificate in Entrepreneurship, and a Certificate in New Media Studies. Go Dawgs and Texas Forever!