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From Wagons to Riches: The Oldest Black-Owned Business by John T. Ward Continues to Inspire Generations

As we celebrate Black History Month, the 142-year-old legacy of John T. Ward is one of many that continues to inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more.

Having weathered two world wars, a Great Depression, and a global pandemic, E.E. Ward Moving & Storage Co., the brainchild of Ward and his son, has maintained its reign as the nation’s oldest continuously operating Black-led business.

This year, the multi-million dollar moving company celebrates 142 years of service.

The legacy of a fearless trailblazer 

Born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1820, John T. Ward relocated to Columbus in 1836 and married Catherine Moss two years later.

From the late 1850s and 1860s, Ward served as a conductor in the Underground Railroad. He offered his Columbus, Ohio, home, called “The Ward House, as well as wagon rides to enslaved people as they passed through one of the main stops on the historic path.

At that time, slavery in the U.S. had only just been declared illegal through the 13th Amendment, but there was still a dire need for help.

As early as 1859, the fearless trailblazer began cementing the foundation for his moving company. It was during the Civil War when he began working on government contracts with wholesale and produce houses to haul equipment for the U.S. Army.

Utilizing the knowledge and resources in this business, Ward carved a path for a family-owned enterprise.

In 1881, John and his son, William S. Ward, founded the Ward Transfer Line, a transportation business using horses and wagons to transport goods and supplies from warehouses and storage yards to commercial sites and markets in downtown Columbus. By 1889, the name had changed to E.E. Ward Transfer and Storage, introducing storage services and Edgar Earl Ward, John’s youngest son, who had transitioned into the management role of the company.

The Wards later shifted to motorized vehicles, officially retiring their last horse by 1921. They would go on to secure valuable contracts, including one that hired them to deliver 1 million pianos for the legendary piano company Steinway & Sons.

(Image: Cision)

Throughout the decades, E.E. Ward performed relocation services for schools, museums, libraries, business, and homes.

“This has been a way of living. We’ve been handling some families for three generations,” former president and great-grandson of John, Eldon W. Ward, told BLACK ENTERPRISE in a 1996 story. “You can deal with people in such a way that you have honor and respect and can still be remembered.”

One-hundred and fifteen years later, Ward Transfer maintains its laudable reputation for embodying ethical values like putting customers first. They were bestowed with the inaugural 1996 Better Business Torch award for Marketplace Ethics for Small Business at the National Press Club in Washington, BLACK ENTERPRISE previously reported.

The legacy continues

In 2001, Eldon Ward retired after 51 years, and sold the business to his godson, Brian Brooks, and Brooks’ childhood friend, Otto Beatty III.

In 2003, the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Congressional Black Caucus recognized E.E. Ward Moving & Storage as the oldest African-American-owned business in America.

Today, the moving and storage company is owned by Brooks and his wife Dominique operating with offices in Columbus, OH and both Charlotte and Raleigh, NC. By 2019, E.E. Ward employed over 50 full-time workers, bringing in $5 million annually.

(Brian and Dominique Brooks, co-owners of E.E. Ward Moving & Storage Company.)

At the company, Brian oversees operations and Dominique specializes in branding and marketing. Together, they continue to serve its diverse community as an agent for North American Van Lines, providing national and international relocation services.

“It’s never shut down which is a fortunate thing, through all the things that the that we’ve, you know, gone through as a country, world wars, financial crises, and now a pandemic,” he told Charlotte news station, WCNC.

In doing so, 1881 Apparel was born out of the inspiring Ward legacy. It is a clothing line of hats, sweatshirts, t-shirts, and tank tops, bearing “1881 Strong” or “E.E. Ward 1881.”

“I want to be proof that you can pivot from one industry to the next and still find success by fusing your talents, life experiences and connections,” Dominique said, per the brand website.

Paying it forward with positive social change

With hands in many projects and outreach programs in the community, E.E. Ward is not your average small moving company. They support R.I.S.E (Restoring Independence Supporting Empowerment), a program that seeks to build adaptable and mortgage-free smart homes for wounded veterans.

In the past, E.E. Ward hosted a charity event called Laps for Learning that raised money to provide swimming lessons for children in the Columbus area. They were able to raise over $12,000 in 2018.

(Laps for Learning Flyer/ EE Ward)

Additionally, the company sponsors sports teams in the Collegiate Conference of the South and the Brick Sports League.

Reaping the rewards

On June 25, 2022, the Brooks couple were inducted into the National Civil Rights Hall of Fame.

The company has also been recognized for outstanding customer service and overall quality experience with awards including the Better Business Bureau of Central Ohio Torch Award for Ethics in 2018 and 2012, Overall Quality Hauling Agent of the Year award by the North American Van Lines in 2018, and more.

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