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The changing nature of BLACK BUSINESS

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To Charles James, the 1880 presidential campaign of James A. Garfield represented a business opportunity.

In the months preceding election day, the enterprising young James trudged from door to door in his hometown, Charleston, W.Va., peddling a line of assorted political souvenirs. The election passed and the bottom dropped out of the political-button-and-banner market, but James took his earnings and bought manufactured goods and bartered for fresh produce at surrounding farms.

From this humble beginning, James soon became the proud owner of a thriving food distributorship. Three generations later -- after prospering, failing, and reviving -- C. H. James & Co. employs 30 people, and last year it grossed $5 million selling food to supermarkets, restaurants, and hotels in the Charleston area. It is one of the oldest black-owned enterprises in the United States.

Near Tysons Corner, Va., in one of those low, unobtrusively modern buildings that all technology firms seem to occupy, Robert Quinichett runs one of the newest and fastest-growing of America's black-owned businesses.

An Ohio State University graduate with a degree in math, Mr. Quinichett worked for North American Aviation, Computer Sciences Corporation, and the Department of Agriculture before striking out on his own. In 1977, he founded Sterling Systems Inc., a company that sets up data-collecting computer systems. With 1981 receipts estimated at $17 million, Sterling ranks 27th on Black Enterprise magazine's list of the top 100 US black companies.

''I worked seven days a week, around the clock. I didn't think about not succeeding,'' he says. His hard work has carried him to a top-floor suite with that whisper of elegance that says ''chief executive officer.'' But Sterling Systems, like many other companies, now faces a challenging period of transition forced by cutbacks in government aid to minority businesses.m

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