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America's Oldest African-American-Owned Travel Agency Takes on the Future with SBA

Post World War II America was a booming economy, but a nation divided.  With few exceptions, the era’s institutionalized segregation prevented African Americans from sharing in that prosperity.  But, in Philadelphia, an upstart black-owned travel agency found a way to turn segregation’s barriers into opportunities that would sustain it to become the oldest African-American-owned travel agency in the United States.  Today, that firm is using the same ingenuity--and some assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration--to conquer the federal government contracting market to help insure future success.

Earning a Place in History

In the years that followed the Allies’ victories in Europe and Japan, Americans took to the roads, rails and skies in unprecedented numbers.  The nation’s businesses were growing again, and more reliable employment opportunities meant that the dream of careers, homes, and a car in every driveway was becoming a reality for more and more Americans.  Soon, the prosperous post-war years opened the world of both business and leisure travel for the first time to America’s growing middle class.  It was a time of endless possibility, and the burgeoning travel industry was along for the ride, growing by leaps and bounds in keeping with its swelling client roster.

But, even in this climate of optimism, segregation remained the law of the land.  Almost every facet of life for every segment of African American society, including its most affluent, was dictated by these restrictions.  So, as America’s travel culture took hold, its minority communities remained underserved.  For the portion of African Americans who stood ready and able to travel--albeit relatively small--“whites only” limitations on destinations, lodging, restaurants and the like made travel next to impossible.  To book African Americans’ travel, establishment-by-establishment knowledge of whether black travelers would be welcome was required.  So, even if white-owned travel agencies were willing to serve black customers, the task was overwhelming and cost-prohibitive, given the relatively small size of the black traveling population.    

It was out of that need that Rodgers travel was born. 

In 1949, Harold Rodgers, a young African American medical student, found himself working as a porter for TWA at Philadelphia International Airport.  He had taken the job to fund his way through medical school.  But, in the end, that position would open the doors of opportunity not only for Rodgers as a by-happenstance entrepreneur, but for an entire community of African American travelers.

Through his position at TWA, Rodgers learned the ins and outs of the travel industry.  As an industry insider, he learned which travel carriers and destinations welcomed all races, even as his medical school education kept him in touch with the more affluent, travel hungry members of his African American community.  Rodgers knew segregation’s limitations would make those would-be travelers a captive market, and that he had the contacts and knowledge to tap into it.  So, on August 15, 1949, Rodgers founded Rodgers Travel Bureau, ushering in a new era of travel freedom for the African American population that it served.

At the outset, business for Rodgers Travel was booming.  As one of the only African-American-owned travel agencies in the United States, Rodgers had a virtual lock on all travel arrangements for affluent African American individuals, as well as a variety of African American organizations, including professional associations, churches, and fraternities and sororities.  As Rodgers’ reputation grew, it took widespread referrals from airlines and some of the Philadelphia area’s most prominent white-owned travel agencies, which were ill-equipped to navigate the complexities of booking travel for blacks in the pre-civil rights era.      

By the mid-1950’s, Rogers Travel’s modern leadership began to fall into place as current owner Norma Pratt’s father, Fred Russell, took the helm.  In 1954, William Griffin purchased the business from Harold Rodgers and soon added partner Fred Russell to manage the business.  Immediately, Griffin and Russell set about expanding Rodgers’ footprint.  In the late 1960’s, Griffin and Russell opened a Rodgers Travel location in Washington, D.C.  That office expanded on the Rodgers formula by targeting the affluent African American population and national headquarters for black organizations located there.

Changing Times

Through the 1970’s, Rodgers Travel continued to thrive, courtesy strictly of its original all-black customer base.  Even in the years immediately following desegregation, that customer base remained loyal to Rodgers.  Legalized segregation had ended, but the practical reality remained that black travelers were still not welcome at all establishments across the U.S., and Rodgers Travel was adept at navigating those travel limitations.  During the 1970’s, Rodgers kept pace with the expanding travel options of the times, booking newly introduced large charter planes, as well as mainstay bus trips, for black travelers through both its Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. locations. 

But, by the 1970’s, there was no doubt that the times were changing for Rodgers.  Russell’s daughters Norma Pratt and Joanne Ussery joined the management team to learn the business from their father.  Together, the two women would take the reins of the business at a time marked by great change, both within the business and in the travel industry overall. 

In the mid 1970's, William Griffin passed away, leaving his partner Fred Russell as owner of the company.  In 1980, Fred Russell passed away, leaving Rogers Travel to his two daughters, Joanne Usrey and Norma Pratt.  In the early 1980’s, the sisters divided Rodgers Travel into two separate companies, with Pratt’s headquartered in Philadelphia.  Pratt re-incorporated the business as Rodgers Travel, Inc., and looked forward to a fresh start for the business as it passed to the next generation.  But, in the years to come, Rodgers’ reliable black customer base dissipated.  As desegregation truly took hold, allowing African Americans to travel freely, they were no longer limited to routing their business through black-run travel agencies.  In response, Rodgers consolidated, closing the Washington D.C., branch office and re-trenching for the next chapter.

Enter: The SBA

As the 1990’s dawned, the aging Rodgers Travel faced an unfamiliar business landscape.  Changing airline ticket practices had gutted travel agency profit margins, and the advent of the internet decimated demand for professional leisure travel arrangements.  Meanwhile, changes in the African American community that had so long supported Rodgers further eroded its industry foothold.  Aside from the social integration that now marginalized Rodgers’ business model, the deterioration of the West Philadelphia neighborhood that it called home since the 1940’s discouraged what remained of its clientele.  Rodgers’ high profile in the pre-civil-rights era insured its place in history, but its place in the future was more than uncertain.    

Undaunted, now-company-president Norma Pratt (sister Joanne Ussery having retired her role in the business), set about redefining Rodgers Travel to compete in this new marketplace, and compete to win. Years in business had taught Pratt that, with the right research, the right business plan, and the right partners, the sky is the limit, even against enormous odds.  At start-up, Rodgers had fought the limits of racism to emerge on top.  This time, Rodgers would, again, be in a fight for survival.  But, this time, Rodgers would start with the right partner—the SBA.     

From a new location at the edge of Philadelphia’s city limits, Pratt shaped her new vision for Rodgers.  She affiliated with professional organizations and networked with industry leaders until she identified the right avenue for growth for Rodgers—federal government contracting.  And, intent on sustaining that growth long term, Pratt made enrollment in SBA’s 8(a) business development program a centerpiece of her federal government contracting plans.

Making a Go of It

Newly-minted business model in hand, Pratt dove right in.  Pratt would use all of her industry know-how and experience to land Rodgers’ biggest client yet—the U.S. federal government.  And she would tap into SBA’s 8(a) business development program to create a public-private-sector business mix that would sustain the business into the future. 

Along with guidance through the complexities of the federal government marketplace, SBA’s 8(a) Business Development Program provides socially and economically disadvantaged businesses like Rodgers with various forms of assistance, including management and technical assistance, financial assistance, advocacy support.  Through those services, SBA assists enrolled businesses to gain access to the resources necessary to develop their businesses and improve their ability to compete in the mainstream American economy.

A seasoned business leader, Pratt recognized the value of SBA’s 8(a) business development program to enhance her headway into the federal government marketplace and to better focus Rodger’s new business model.  But Pratt knew that the 8(a) program’s limitation on enrollment to 9 years meant that, to maximize the program’s benefit, she would have to find her footing in the federal government contracting arena before enrolling.  So, in 1991, she bid on Rodgers’ first federal government contract —a $10 million per year contract servicing Scott AFB. 

Soon, the Scott Air Force contract would lead to others, and the time was right for Pratt to tap into the 8(a) program to turn the promise of this new business into a secure future for her firm.  Her government contracting experience to date had taught her what Rodgers niche in this new arena would be—handling complex international travel, specialized travel, and V.I.P. travel arrangements for military and civilian government personnel that often proved difficult for larger firms. 

So, in 1992, Pratt enrolled Rodgers in the 8(a) program through the SBA’s Philadelphia District Office.  Throughout Rodgers’ 9-year enrollment in the 8(a) program, the specialized nature of the travel industry made standard 8(a) mentoring approaches difficult.  Accordingly, SBA Philadelphia District Office staff tailored their guidance of Rodgers to maximize the program’s benefit for the firm, educating Pratt through one-on-one counseling on the rules and any rule changes that would affect her federal government contracting success. 

Through the 8(a) program, Rodgers won a variety of federal government contracts, resulting in the firm adding more historic “firsts” to its resume: Rodgers was the first woman-owned disadvantaged business to win U.S. Department of Defense travel management contracts as a prime and a major subcontractor; and the first small business government travel contractor to have an international location—at Lodges Field Air Force Base in Portugal.  But, more than that, through the 8(a) program, Rodgers won a new lease on life.  As competitor after travel industry competitor failed, swept under by the rising tide of change, Rodgers adapted, re-invented, survived and thrived.  For Rodgers, its past has given it roots, but, through the 8(a) business development program, a new business model and client base have given it wings.