Montoya Smith, host of the Atlanta talk show, “Mental Dialogue,” asked, “Can we rebuild ‘Black Wall Street?’”
“No, really,” he added, recognizing the depth of his question and assuring folks he was not kidding or just being rhetorical.
So, what was Black Wall Street? Most of what I have learned about it was obtained from a book by John Sibley Butler titled, “Entrepreneurship and Self-Help Among Black Americans, A Reconsideration of Race and Economics,” which contains an exhaustive section on Tulsa, Oklahoma’s history and a detailed account of what took place in its Greenwood District. Some of the information below comes from Dr. Butler’s book. I also learned from face to face conversations with six of the survivors of the Tulsa Riot.
Black Wall Street was burned to the ground in 1921 by a White mob. The Greenwood District, located in the northern section of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was once called “Negro Wall Street,” and “Little Africa.” It was home to hundreds of Black owned businesses and sat on valuable land desired by White oil speculators, who even tried to buy parcels of that land from Blacks for ten cents on the dollar immediately following the Tulsa riot. Fortunately and wisely, Blacks refused to sell.
Despite hundreds of Black lives lost in the riot and all of Greenwood’s businesses destroyed, the story of that economic enclave during the ensuing seventeen years was one of triumph over tragedy. By 1923, as a result of Blacks pooling their money to capitalize new enterprises, the Black business district was even larger than before, and Greenwood was completely restored by Black people by 1938. Ultimately, urban renewal and integration, which allowed Blacks to shop at non-Black stores, led to the demise of “Black Wall Street.”
To Amos Wilson’s point, Greenwood was a pyramid built by Blacks in the early 1900’s. Instead of looking back and merely reveling in the successes of Mound Bayou, Mississippi, and other enclaves that came before them, Black people in Greenwood built upon those legacies. Thus, my answer to the question posed by Montoya Smith, (Can we rebuild Black Wall Street?) was and is an emphatic and unequivocal, “Yes!”
My answer to that question is based on the fact that we have done it before under far worse circumstances than we are under today. But as I listened to the other guest on Montoya’s show, Mr. Jay West, entrepreneur and president of the Lithonia Small Business and Merchants Association located on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia, I became even more convinced.
Immediately impressed by Mr. West and the work his group is doing in a city that is approximately 85 percent Black, I sought him out to learn more. Jay West understands and promotes local business support. “I do 95 percent of my shopping right here in Lithonia,” West said, “because I know that one dollar spent here has the multiplier effect of three dollars, as our businesses support one another.”
West is absolutely correct, and the Lithonia merchants association will benefit collectively and individually from circulating their dollars. They will grow their businesses and create more jobs. This nascent organization can be the model from which new Black Wall Streets can be built across this nation. It is on track to encourage more entrepreneurship and demonstrate the power of a cohesive, mutually supportive, self-directed, and economically empowered network of conscious business owners and consumers who are committed to growth and sustainability.
True partnerships between educated consumers and business professionals in Black economic enclaves comprise the basis for real power in the marketplace, i.e. collective purchasing programs and affinity groups, revolving loan funds, business equity funds, and financial leverage to stimulate future growth. Lithonia is in that space right now, and there is plenty of room for more cities and segments within those cities to do the same.
To draw the discussion closer to home in Atlanta: “Can Sweet Auburn be sweet again?”
John Wesley Dobbs called Auburn Avenue the “richest Negro street in the world.” Suffering its own riot in 1906 that left 25 Black men dead, the Sweet Auburn neighborhood can also be restored, and with leaders like Jay West and others in Atlanta, I am confident that we will build more pyramids in the Black community.
James Clingman, whose writings focus on economic empowerment for Black people, is the author of “Black Dollars Matter! Teach Your Dollars How to Make More Sense.” The book is available at Blackonomics.com. His column was distributed by the NNPA Newswire.