Today, the Massacre of Black Americans in Tulsa, Oklahoma during the Memorial Day weekend of 1921 is pretty common knowledge. It is often pointed to as THE example of Black American wealth creation. It was also depicted on HBO’s Lovecraft Country and the Watchmen. The famous Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa in 1921 was dubbed “Black Wall Street.” It was an area of large Black economic wealth and independence. In a direct reaction to this, White people in Oklahoma, used dynamite and planes to bomb the city. This resulted in 8,000 homeless people, and an estimated 250 people dead. This was also made possible because the city’s police deputized every able-bodied white man and handed out weapons from the city armory. It was a Tulsa sanctioned riot/massacre/killing. This story is often told and raised as a shining and singular example of Black wealth, but there are more. During the period of the Civil War to Reconstruction, there are many other examples of Black economic power.
The Hayti Community, Durham, N.C.
Let’s look at downtown Durham during the early 20th century. It was a thriving bustling center of black-owned business. The area was named after Haiti, the first free, independent black republic in the Western Hemisphere. Sitting on Parish street was the country’s largest and oldest black-owned insurance company, North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. It was founded by James E. Shepard, Aaron McDuffie Moore, and John Merrick; it became the richest black owned company during the time with assets over $200 million. Those same founders also started a land-development company that built many of the homes and businesses in the area. In addition Merrick, along with other business men founded the country’s first African American bank, Mechanics and Farmers. The bank helped fund local black ventures and businesses. Both the insurance company and the bank remain operational today.
Parrish Street was also home to many other black businesses: barber shops, tailors, printers, masons, physicians, lawyers, newspapers, periodicals and a pharmacy, Bull City Drug Company. An article in the Root described “Hayti as the first black community to become fully self-sufficient. It built Lincoln Hospital, staffed by black doctors and nurses, as well as a theater, a library, hotels and over 200 businesses. North Carolina Central University was founded in Hayti in 1910 and became the first liberal arts HBCU to be state-funded in 1925.”
Hayti declined because they did not have representation in government and the state divided the community with a freeway. In 2004, the City of Durham launched the Parrish Street Project to revitalize the district and recognize the leaders of Black Wall Street.
Jackson Ward, Richmond VA
Jackson Ward in Richmond,Virginia a.k.a the Birthplace of Black Capitalism, was one of the most prosperous black communities in America in the early 1900s. It predates Tulsa and was a community of thriving theaters, stores, and medical practices. The first black owned banks were in Richmond. One was chartered by Maggie Walker, the daughter of a freed slave and the first Black woman bank owner. She opened the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank which made loans to qualified borrowers shunned by white banks, such as black doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. St. Luke merged with other black banks and became Consolidated Bank and Trust. It was eventually purchased in 2011 by a West-Virginia bank and renamed Premier Bank.
Jackson Ward was also called the “Harlem of the South” and hosted Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Richmond’s own Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Similar to the Hayti Community in Durham, Jackson Ward declined due to government interference when an all white city council planned to “revitalize” the city. They built a federal housing building in the area and only 25 of the neighborhood’s families were allowed to live in the new 297 unit building. This, despite the destruction of over 200 homes in the building process. The final blow was a vote to run a section of I-95 through the neighborhood in the 1950s.
The Fourth Avenue District: Birmingham, Alabama
In 1950, 37% of the Black population of Birmingham, utilized the Fourth Avenue downtown area known as the “Black Business District.” This area too, was dubbed “Little Harlem.” There were retail shops, attorneys, doctor’s offices, and hotels. The buildings were designed by black architects and built by black construction companies, including the six-story, Penny Savings Bank. This is where Birmingham’s Black middle classes thrived and used the iron-and-steel industry to maintain black-owned banks and insurance companies. At the end of segregation, 60 percent of the city’s black-owned businesses were in the Fourth Avenue District.
The area declined during integration because it spread black businesses throughout the city and many of the Fourth Avenue businesses suffered significant economic setbacks.
In the early 20th century, Oklahoma was home to more than 50 all-black towns. Boley was the largest and founded in 1903 with over 4,000 people. Booker T. Washington, called Boley, “the finest black town in the world.” The Washington Post called Boley the wealthiest black town in the country. The town supported newspapers, two colleges, and had its own water system and a black-owned electrical plant. Boley also had five grocery stores, five hotels, seven restaurants, four cotton gins, three drugstores, a jewelry store, four department stores, two insurance companies, two photographers, and an ice plant.
Boley is, however, perhaps more famous for stopping bank robbers. In 1932, a notorious bank robber Charles “Pretty Boy Floyd” and his gang attempted to rob Boley’s black owned bank. The citizens of Boley were well armed and when Floyd’s gang tried to rob the bank, they fought back. They killed both robbers, one was shot by the bank bookkeeper and the other was killed when townspeople opened fire on the robbers. They recovered the $600 that was stolen, but the bank’s president was also shot and killed, by one of the gang members in the process.
The population of Boley declined during the Great Depression and World War II, but the city still exists. Every year it hosts one of the largest and most popular black rodeos. After visiting Boley, Booker T. Washington wrote:
Boley, like the other negro towns that have sprung up in other parts of the country, represents a dawning race consciousness, a wholesome desire to do something to make the race respected; something which shall demonstrate the right of the negro, not merely as an individual, but as a race, to have a worthy and permanent place in the civilization that the American people are creating.Booker T. Washington
This is by no means an exhaustive list. History contains many areas and examples of Black economic power during this period. The majority were destroyed by racism. Regardless, these examples are important to understand as the country moves forward and as we attempt to address the many economic issues currently affecting Black Americans. I hope you enjoyed this post as much I enjoyed researching the topic.
Have a Great Weekend!