Henry G. Parks, Jr. is probably not a name that you know, but it’s one you should. A self-made man in more ways than one, Parks was a philanthropist, a pioneer, an entrepreneur, a facilitator, and a spokesman, but a Businessman First.
As a prominent Black businessman and member of the Baltimore community, Parks had the loftiest of goals; he didn’t just want to be a role model for African-Americans everywhere — though he was, and he embraced that role with open arms — he wanted to transcend race and be recognized as a businessman without boundaries or limitations. Whenever his business was described as a “negro business,” Parks would advocate that it was instead a business for all that just happened to be run by a person of color.
That stance makes Parks an intriguing, potentially polarizing figure. On one hand, he sought many opportunities to help other African-Americans advance, evening the playing field in several sectors. But he never sought an equal playing field for himself, because he was determined to prove he could compete, no matter the circumstances.
How do I know all this? Simple. Dorsey’s voluminous notes and keen attention to detail make his many secondband anecdotes feel like those of an embedded reporter in the thick of the action. Parks emerges from Dorsey’s stories as a fully realized character in his own right; at certain points in the narrative, you feel like the third man in the room during Parks’s many achievements, and that’s a wonderful achievement in and of itself.
That being said, enthusiasm definitely outstrips writing experience here, as a more polished writer would’ve found more seamless ways to weave major moments in the Civil Rights movement into the ongoing timeline of Parks’s life. But for the most part, this is a well-plotted, well-constructed tribute to an icon many might not know. Clunky transitions prove to be only minor obstacles on the path to an absolute wealth of information, including awards, tributes, and milestones in the business world and for the community at large.
And despite Dorsey’s clear and undeniable affection for his subject, that doesn’t make him blind to Parks’s less admirable qualities. Parks’ workaholic nature strained his marriage and his relationship with his children; Dorsey doesn’t fixate on these points the way more salacious biographers would, but he also doesn’t ignore them.
In fact, Dorsey’s affection and respect is often tinged with regret, wishing his friend and mentor had struck a better balance in his life: “Working his business, serving on too many corporate boards, and serving in the local, state, and federal sectors was too much for him over a long period of time.”
Lines like that indicate Dorsey’s understanding of his subject’s missteps, and also a strong message to any readers inspired by Parks’s example: follow his lead, but find your own way.
For a first time author writing about a subject so near and dear, Dorsey does an admirable job seeing the forest for the trees. Businessman First is an impressive effort, adding a valuable wrinkle to the classic tale of the American dream.