What must be done to recreate America’s Black Wall Streets?
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several segregated African American neighborhoods took it upon themselves to establish their own versions of the centers for commerce, industry, and entrepreneurship that white Americans had locked them out of. Because New York’s Wall Street and other metropolitan business hubs had little room or tolerance for them, many Black business leaders skipped them altogether to create economically thriving communities. Examples of this are the “Black Wall Streets” of Parrish Street in Durham, North Carolina, the Jackson Ward district of Richmond, Virginia, and by far the most notable of these communities, the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was infamously destroyed in a 1921 race riot.
Though not every version of Black Wall Street suffered as swift and violent an end as Greenwood did, the majority of them faded away after succumbing to the same factors that make the plausibility of a new Black Wall Street so questionable today. Redlining, dwindling investment, growing poverty, and the countless bitter fruits of systemic racism not only made it more difficult to maintain a high concentration of Black-owned businesses but to achieve financial stability as a Black American at all. Ironically, greater freedom of opportunity and mobility for Black Americans also contributed to the death of Black Wall Street. Olivia B. Waxman notes for TIME that, in the case of Jackson Ward, “The gains of the civil rights movement also created new opportunities for places to live and work outside the neighborhood, exacerbating the decline of Jackson Ward.”
It Can Happen Again
This is why it isn’t outlandish to suggest that segregation actually proved beneficial to the Black economy in some ways. With no one to turn to but themselves, the architects of Black economic centers became self-reliant out of necessity. Today, enhanced freedoms for Black Americans mean enhanced freedom for the Black dollar, and that freedom is much too often used outside of the Black community.
A high concentration of Black businesses can only survive alongside a high concentration of Black purchasing power. Naturally, any business will collapse if it isn’t supported by the surrounding community. Even though the total amount of Black-owned businesses has risen over the last few years, you aren’t very likely to find a community that regularly prefers them to larger, more handsomely funded businesses in the area. Greenwood, for example, boasted two dozen Black-owned grocery stores. Where in America can you go today where everyone you know shops at a Black-owned grocery store instead of the local chain?
Though no communities like the Black Wall Streets of old exist today, several areas are working hard to get there. The Greenwood District itself continues to breed Black-owned businesses, many of which commemorate the community’s former glory. Major metropolitan centers like Atlanta, the District of Columbia, Miami, and Houston sport multiple thousands of Black-owned businesses, ranking them on the list of cities with the highest concentrations of them.
What Needs to Happen
But while it’s hopeful to see so many Black-owned businesses flourishing in major cities, for a Black Wall Street to emerge today, it would likely have to be in a majority-Black community that is somewhat geographically detached from a major metropolitan center. In other words, the conditions of the segregation-era Black Wall Streets as far as demographics and purchasing options go would need to be replicated. The rate at which the age-old Black plea to “keep our money in the community” is ignored is directly proportional to the amount of alternative destinations for that money. As I touched on previously, a Black-owned grocery store is much less likely to survive across the street from Whole Foods than it is across the street from another Black-owned grocery store.
Some smaller cities, like the 76% Black Pine Bluff, Arkansas, contain growing Black business centers that could one day resemble a legitimate Black Wall Street. But like so many predominantly Black cities, Pine Bluff struggles with poverty, housing, and health care access at stultifying rates, and couldn’t possibly develop a bustling economy in its current state. This isn’t to say that Pine Bluff or any other Black community is incapable of recreating Black Wall Street, but the fact is that it can only be achieved if the surrounding populace does its part. With a staggering amount of racially motivated obstacles already in the way, the last thing Black business needs is for Black people themselves to stunt its progress.