Joe and Ray paved the way for black contractors across America

May 1 '19 | By Ray
Joe and Ray paved the way for black contractors across America

The activism of African American construction contractors in an important, and often overlooked, piece of the broader history of racial exclusion in the national construction industry.  Black contractors seldom receive consideration as agents of historic change. The study of black/African-American contractors provides a distinct grassroots perspective from which to view the relationship between black business and black labor.

African-American contractors’ historic link to black workers was a central component in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. By the time that civil rights activists launched mass protest that shut down construction sites in the 1960’s, black tradesmen and contractors in the San Francisco Bay area had spent roughly two decades trying to compel the lily-white building trades unions to open their doors to black workers.

Although the history of racial discrimination and exclusion in organized labor unions dates back to the nineteenth century, after slavery, in places such as the Bay Area the issue became particularly apparent in the 1940’s after World War II, with the massive wartime migration of black Americans from the South & Midwest.

Many of the tens of thousands of black Americans who migrated to the Bay Area in the decades after WWII were experienced and skilled tradesmen, such as plumbers, pipe fitters, electricians, painters, and plasterers who sought work in the booming shipyards and expanding commercial and residential construction markets. But like other black tradesmen that arrived in other union strongholds such as New York, Chicago, Pittsburg, and Seattle during and after WWII, these tradesmen found themselves subjugated to severe racial discrimination, and restrictive labor unions.

When confronted with union discrimination, black tradesmen responded in a variety of ways: some looked for work in other industries, or accepted lower-paying and less-skilled construction work as laborers; others sought assistance from civil rights organization, and government agencies, but these entities did not produce substantial and permanent gains for black tradesmen. However, skilled black tradesmen could also exercise another option – contracting.

The decision to become contractors grew out of constant severe discrimination, and economic necessity. By setting up shop for themselves, black tradesmen who took the state contractors’ licensing exam improved their chances of avoiding union discrimination and gaining a greater degree of control over their work lives.

As black contractors bettered their chances to earn a living in the construction industry, they also created important roles for themselves as employers and mentors for black tradesmen who were curtailed by labor unions in their search for work and training opportunities. Through their close relationships with black tradesmen, black contractors established an important link to the growing Bay Area black communities.

As small, new contractors, starting out for the first time post World War II in the vast construction industry, black contractors were mostly sole proprietorship's , and the owner was usually his own best worker. The majority of black contractors in this period built one or two houses a year and spent most of their time performing repairs and ‘patch work.’

In fact, according to a 1968 estimate of the Small Business Administration (SBA), only 8,000 of America’s approximately 870,000 construction firms were black or minority-owned. The disparity between black and white contractors widened throughout the 1960’s as, in the Bay Area and across the United States, residential construction begin to stagnant, while large-scale, especially government-financed construction expanded.

Moreover, in 1969 the presidential Cabinet on Construction predicted that the “United States will put in place in the next 30 years as much construction as there has been from the founding of the Republic to now.”  Yet black contractors stood to gain little from the construction boom.

According to a 1967 report, for instance, black/minority contractors accounted for less than $500 million of the $80 billion U.S. construction industry. This disparity was evident in the Bay Area, where by 1968 not one of the approximately 125 black contractors in the region was working on a large publicly financed job.

Joseph Dedro enters the industry

In cities across the United States, a small number of black contractors and business leaders sought to make changes for the better of blacks in the construction industry. Chief among them was Joseph Debro. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, Debro came to the Bay Area with his parents after WWII, and became a contractor. 

Debro entered into construction with advanced university training, after obtaining an undergraduate degree in engineering and a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of California. Debro became interested in large-scale construction projects while working as an engineer on the construction of Interstate 580 in the East Bay during the 1950’s. In the years following, he developed a keen interest in the problems confronting black contractors and emerged as one of the leading advocates for black contractors.

Beginning in the 1960s, Debro focused his work on overcoming the four major obstacles that prevented black contractors from expanding their companies and obtaining lucrative government contracts: Lack of Skilled Labor, Lack of Technical Management Skills, Lack of Capital, and Bonding Requirements. The lack of skilled workers for instance, was a direct result of the building trades unions, which controlled the primary avenue to apprenticeship training. But, the fourth obstacle – bonding requirements – proved the most troublesome for black contractors to overcome.

Because of their historical lack of capital and technical training, black contractors claimed that the bonding requirements created a vicious cycle in which most black contractors lacked experience, capital, and managerial capabilities required to obtain the bonds they needed to quality for various types of projects that would give them the experience needed to qualify.

But, Surety companies that issued bonds, claimed that they also considered other factors when deciding whether to issue a bond or not, such as the “three C’s”: Character, Capital, and Capacity. Although,in a unpublished 1968 memorandum, the American Insurance Association stated that it believed “that it will serve NO USEFUL PURPOSE, economic or sociological, for surety companies to issue contract bonds indiscriminately to all applicants, qualified or not.”

Black contractors considered such practices as examples of racial discrimination and frequently protested that the industry perpetuated a double standard. As a result, Debro and other black contractors testified to congress that surety companies denied bonds to qualified black contactors, but these charges of overt discrimination were often difficult to prove because the majority of black contractors could not meet the capital requirements of most bonding companies anyways.

Debro believed something needed to change, and that the free market could not solve the bonding problems, nor the other obstacles that limited black contractor’s opportunities. He felt that “all these problems are aggravated by the inaction of city leaders (working) in the unions, government, private business, and universities who should be devoting their time to mobilizing resources on a local level to cope with the exclusion of minorities from all phases of the construction industry.”

However, before black contractors could expect to receive external assistance, Debro felt that they needed to organize themselves on a larger scale.

Joe meets Ray

In the Bay Area, protesters begin to target the construction of the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART), a billion-dollar project that was scheduled to take five years to complete. Much of BART’s construction was located in some of the poorest neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco, and local residents made it clear that they would not stand by idly while white construction crews performed work and earned middle-class wages.

And it was in that tumultuous atmosphere that a black electrical contractor named Raymon Dones walked into Joseph Debro’s office in 1966. Although Ray was not seeking a contract on the BART project, he hoped that Joe Debro, who was at the time, serving as the executive director of the Oakland Small Business Development Center (OSBDC), could help him obtain a loan so that he could bid on other government projects.

Born in Marshall, Texas, Raymon Dones moved to the Bay Area in 1950, and in 1953 he established Dones Electric (which later became Aladdin Electric) in Berkley, CA.  Like many other black contractors in the Bay Area during this period, Aladdin Electric procured steady employment on small residential buildings, and by the mid-1960’s he had a workforce of six full-time electricians – all of whom were black.

Yet when the residential construction market slowed down, Ray was unable to obtain surety bonds to bid on lucrative government –financed construction projects, and as a result he had to lay off two of his electricians. Hoping to avoid further cutbacks and looking to expand his company, he visited Joe Debro at the OSBDC.

Ray Dones and Joe Debro immediately hit it off , and instead of arranging a loan they discussed forming an organization that could assist black contractors in making the transition from small residential construction to larger public-sector projects.  Shortly thereafter, Dones and Debro formed the General and Specialty Contractors Association (GSCA), which was among the first black contractor associations in the United States.

The founders of the GSCA hoped their organization would appeal to small-scale contractors by offering a variety of programs designed to provide the managerial and technical assistance needed to compete with more established firms on large and publicly financed projects. 

In its first three years, the GSCA developed programs to provide information to black contractors about publicly funded contracts, and assisted inexperienced members with preparing estimates, and business procedures on jobs in progress, as well as mediated in labor disputes.

And in 1968, six GSCA members pooled their resources to form Trans-Bay Engineering and Builders, Inc., a general contracting firm that they hoped could compete with the larger white-owned contracting companies in the Bay Area.

Creating opportunities & training the Bay

The GSCA also placed emphasis on training black workers for the building trades. Because of their need for skilled tradesmen, the GSCA contractors made training black and other races of workers an important part of their mission.  GSCA contractors stressed that the historical link between black contractors and the unions’ history of discrimination caused young blacks to avoid union-administered apprenticeship programs. GSCA leaders insisted, most construction workers learned trade skills through on-the-job training - something black workers acquired while working for black contractors. 

Black contractors sought a model for integrating construction training into the black community, which would at the same time eliminate the barriers that limited their access to jobs. By the summer of 1967, the GSCA and the OSBDC had drafted a ‘community action program’ for Oakland that proposed the of use black contractors as the primary vehicle for training black workers.

The plan called for an “On-the-job Training Credit Bank” that would provide training and employment for approximately six-hundred workers while creating an economically viable group of building contractors who would be able to carry-on the training of black workers, and assist contractors with increaing their business skills.

After the program was rejected financing by the federal government. Dones and Debro eventually found proper funding, from private philanthropies, such as the Ford Foundation, which provided a 3-year, $300,000 grant in 1968, so that the Credit Bank could help cover the costs of training black construction workers, while simultaneously increasing the bond capacity of black contractors.

The Oakland Bonding Assistance Program, as it was named, produced immediate results. Within a few months of operation, the program made 35 bond-related advances totaling $287,544, to black contractors to secure bonds needed to bid on government projects. 

 Trans-Bay Engineers and Builders was the program’s biggest client. It was able to obtain an interest-free $50,000 loan from the fund to secure a bond on the construction of the West Oakland Health Center, a contract that the company would have otherwise lost because the surety company had cancelled company's bond at the eleventh hour.

The GSCA also formed a program called PREP (Property Rehabilitation Employment Project), and formed a cooperation with the Alameda County Building and Construction Trade Council,  which was eventually financed with grants for the Department of Labor and the Ford Foundation. One of PREP's mission was to help black tradesmen with previous construction experience attain journeyman status. And, in 1969 PREP provided construction training to hundreds of black youth who were unable to get into union apprenticeship programs.

The success of the these programs helped GSCA become  an integral component of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency’s (ORA) attempts to maximize black participation in its West Oakland projects. GSCA helped black and other races of contractors secure “turnkey” agreements with the Oakland Housing Authority. 

This level of participation had a direct impact on black employment on redevelopment projects. And in 1970, Joe Debro reported that 200 new jobs had been generated and black tradesmen work hours and wages roughly doubled, and “generated more non-white union journeymen in the in the high-wage crafts than in the entire history of the local hiring-hall process.”

The GSCA’s pilot project in the Bay Area became a model for programs across the Unuted States, and helped Bay Area contractors take a lead role in the founding a national black contractors association to build upon their success. Based on early returns, and success in Oakland, the Ford Foundation helped launch similar programs in New York, Boston, and Cleveland.

By organizing themselves into collective associations and advancing their program in Oakland, Joe Dedro and Ray Dones’ programs and policies had gone on to effect the national agendas, and have in recent years inspired black contractors and other minority contractors to create organizations that successfully address discrimination in the historically racist construction industry.


After retirement, Joe Debro never ceased to be active in his community and began writing for several community newspapers, including the San Francisco Bay View, a national Black newspaper; the East Bay Express; and the Oakland Post. 

He continued to mentor and advocate for young business people and contractors, trying to break down the barriers of racial exclusion in trade unions and government contracting.

Joe Debro struggled to insure that all of his children acquired an education, and all three of his sons not only graduated college, but attained Master’s degrees. The middle son, Karl, earned his doctorate a year before his father’s death.

AAs for Ray Dones, during his 20 years of business, Ray was ranked in the Top-6 black construction contractors in the United States, completing over $200 million worth of construction contracts. He made history in 1970  when he partnered the company he helped create, Tran-Bay, with Turner Construction to create the first joint venture project between a major firm and a minority builder. 

In 1999, Engineering New-Record magazine named Raymon Dones as one of the most influential people in the construction industry over a 125-years period.

Ray continued his activism in the community throughout his lifetime. He served on the National Urban League, UC Regents of Advisors, the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, and as a volunteer with the Museum of African-American Technology (MAAT)



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