Less than 50 years after slavery was abolished, our African American ancestors created numerous business districts - the three known as “Black Wall Street” and others that went by different nicknames or no nickname at all.
How is it that 150 years after slavery, few if any of these African American business districts are still functioning, and why haven't we built any new ones to take their place?
In my understanding, it boils down to fear, desire and an inferiority complex.
The end of slavery was a time of great hope for our ancestors. Finally able to earn money for their work and build families without the threat of separation, not only did they form Black Wall Streets but schools, universities, churches, newspapers, hospitals, social clubs, entertainment
venues and political associations.
In short, they created fully functioning communities, sometimes even better than the white ones nearby. For example, the black residents of Greenwood, Oklahoma, had indoor plumbing before their white neighbors in Tulsa.
We know what happened next. Angry, jealous, entitled whites - with and without Klan hoods -used both the law and violence to stunt African Americans’ progress. To maintain their monopoly on wealth, comfort and political participation. To make us so fearful that we would “stay in our
In towns like Rosewood (Florida) and Greenwood, angry whites burned African Americans’ homes and businesses to the ground. In Greenwood, 10,000 people became homeless overnight.
Fear and sorrow caused towns like Rosewood to permanently shut down. Today, some let painful memories of devastating attacks like these make them afraid of creating areas dominated by black owned businesses similar to Chinatown, Little Italy and other ethnic enclaves.
However, millions of dollars in damage and hundreds of lives lost did not stop Greenwood's residents. They fought to rebuild their town even after the government reneged on its promise of funds to rebuild and tried to sell their land to developers. And they succeeded.
Even before desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, some blacks desired to live, work and spend money with whites, because they seemed to have the best of everything.
They weren't entirely wrong. “Separate but equal” was a myth because African American businesses, schools, churches, hospitals and other institutions were denied equal access to the resources needed to compete at the same level as white businesses.
The list of black inventors shows how creative and innovative we are, but both government and private industry personnel often supplied black entrepreneurs and institutions with faulty or worn-out supplies and equipment because they wanted to see our race fail.
Once integration gave black consumers more choice, black businesses began to lose their primary clientele without picking up any new ones in the white community - at least not right away.
This loss of customer base only got worse when the federal government began building highways smack in the middle of black communities and business districts. Uprisings like the ones after Dr. King's death and Rodney King's court case further damaged the strength of black communities, including the businesses that remained.
Factor in the rise in unemployment, drug addiction and crime, and you can see how our once vibrant Black Wall Streets transformed into blighted, neglected ghost towns.
The most important question now is where do we go from here? How do we embrace the lessons of the past and build a brighter economic future in the spirit of Black Wall Street?