There were few African-American faces among Louis H. Gilford's construction engineering classmates in the 1960s. Even fewer went on to open their own contracting firms.
Lacking a foundation of business contacts, Gilford landed many of his early contracts through the federal and state set-aside programs inspired by former Maryland congressman and civil rights leader Parren J. Mitchell. And that assistance helped build Gilford's Beltsville-based company into one of the region's largest black-owned contracting firms.
Gilford Corp., which started with an initial $5,000 investment in 1984, now has completed more than 370 projects worth $400 million. And what once was a one-man operation now employs 70 people.
As one of 275 businesses to outgrow the Maryland Minority Business Enterprise program and one of more than 4 million black-owned firms nationwide, Gilford is part of Mitchell's legacy. And while the minority programs have come under fire from critics of racial preferences, been limited by the courts and abused by companies that were not disadvantaged, they have aided countless firms across the nation.
Gilford and others believe they remain necessary to give small minority firms a better shot at economic success. He said his business would not have grown as fast without the programs that Mitchell championed.
"What Parren Mitchell did was a huge deal," Gilford said of the state's first black congressman, who died May 28. "I'm not sure he gets all the credit he deserves."
Many of Gilford's projects have come from federal agencies. Mitchell insisted that minority businesses be guaranteed a share of the U.S. government's contracts to level the field of competition and bring substantial work to firms historically shut out of the process.
If they got some work, they might grow larger, he argued. They then would bid on and secure larger projects, contributing to the well-being of more workers and the economy at large. When firms grew large enough to graduate from the minority programs, they would make room for other start-ups to take their place.
In 1976, Congress passed a public works bill that required governments receiving federal money to set aside 10 percent for minority owned companies. A 1980 transportation bill required set-asides in federal highway business. Cities and states launched their own programs - Baltimore's started in 1977 and Maryland's in 1978.
Critics of racial and gender preferences remain. And a series of court decisions have eliminated quotas. The programs have since been retooled with goals to ensure that the government contracts funded with taxpayer money make every effort to include small, minority businesses.
Over time, the programs also have given rise to abuse. A 2003 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Inspector General found some non-minority businesses taking advantage of programs meant for minorities in New Orleans and concluded that the city was not alone.
In Maryland, officials recently found that some applications to its program might have been improperly approved. State officials are auditing the program at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and around Maryland.
But the programs can be fixed and are still needed, said Anthony W. Robinson, president of the Minority Business Enterprise Legal Defense Fund and Education Fund, which was founded by Mitchell in 1980. The fund lobbies for minority programs and defends against court challenges.
He said vigilant policing is needed, and so is more access to contracts and capital for legitimate businesses. In his recent testimony before Congress, Robinson said minorities account for more than 26 percent of the population but own less than 12 percent of the nation's businesses.
"Mitchell laid the foundation for minority business enterprise programs at the federal and at the state and local levels," Robinson said. "They've made significant progress, but we still have a ways to go in developing parity for minority businesses."
Gilford, known as Henry, said the playing field was made more level for him by Mitchell's efforts. Projects on which Gilford has had a role include renovations to the Washington Monument and construction of the Centerpoint retail and residential development that anchors the west side of Baltimore. The company is making a new business of building churches.
The company graduated from the federal program in 2003 and Maryland's program last year.
Gilford, 62, said the contracting business remains tough - he recently had to shutter his demolition business, cutting his work force in half. Supplies, equipment and labor remain expensive, spikes in gasoline prices have eaten into slim margins and each potential new job is hugely competitive. Know-how is important, but relationships and connections are essential.
The minority programs, Gilford said, gave him opportunities to use his know-how when he didn't have relationships and connections.
He hopes to change the landscape by speaking to high school students and encouraging more minorities to enter fields of engineering and construction. And he hopes he can someday hand over his company to his son Louis Henry Gilford Jr., who has his own construction-related business that participates in Maryland's minority program.
For now, the elder Gilford will keep peddling his experience.
His company is taking on a $25 million piece of National Harbor, a $2 billion retail, office and residential development on the Potomac River in Prince George's County. The firm was hired as the general contractor on a 500-room expansion of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, a project anchor.
Gaylord Hotels had pledged to the county that 20 percent of the work on the expansion would go to minority firms. But Toby Arnheim, Gaylord's vice president of design and construction, said the firm needed more than names - it needed companies that could do the work.
"More than anything, their reputation in the community as a contractor is important to us," he said. "They have to be on time and on budget. We have to know they'll be able to finish the job, and Henry has come through. ... He's a shining star in our project right now."