Black Wall Street: Then and Today
- The stories of America’s many ‘Black Wall Streets’ provide a fascinating look at the twin forces of systemic racism and a powerful resiliency shaping their development.
- Community banking and minority financial institutions owned by and focused on Black and Brown communities are critical to addressing racial, wealth, and information gaps.
- Prosperity and generational wealth have been part of Black America’s DNA since the moment they were permitted to buy property rather than be property.
Following the end of the Civil War and the rise of Jim Crow in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, African Americans, living under enforced segregation, created their own businesses to support their communities.
One of the first of these communities was the Jackson Ward district of Richmond, Virginia, established in 1871, less than a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation Act.
At the center of this community's success were entrepreneurs who harnessed few resources to found businesses. Those businesses include the first Black-owned life insurance company and the St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, part of the longest-running Black-owned bank in the United States (U.S.), running through 2005.
Over time, Jackson Ward was slowly erased through a combination of 'redlining' in which mortgage loans were denied for houses in Black neighborhoods or priced at predatory levels. Also, 'blight removal' heavily impacted Black neighborhoods. Older buildings and entire neighborhoods were razed to the ground, and the development of the interstate highway system in which highways cut through previously tight-knit communities.
Recommended Read: Redlining's Lasting Effects on Black Americans Today
The stories of Jackson Ward and the Tulsa Race Massacre, both searing and singular moments in American history and microcosms of the broader racism at play throughout the country, offer compelling lessons in wealth creation and loss, entrepreneurship, and resilience.
Tulsa's "Black Wall Street"
A segregated community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Greenwood offered a haven where Black people could buy land and build homes in their name, a rarity in Tulsa during the early 20th century. As a result, local businesses flourished on the proverbial 'other side of the tracks,' north of the railroad line, laying the foundation for generational wealth.
The Greenwood District was one of the wealthiest Black communities in the U.S. during the Jim Crow era, earning it the name "Black Wall Street." And Wall Street it was, bustling with as many as 600 businesses, 21 churches, a hospital, library, school system, and post office. Its banks and beauty parlors, newspapers and nightclubs, clothing retailers, and restaurants served the neighborhood of nearly 10,000 Black residents, creating a self-contained community where 'Black-owned' developed out of necessity and with pride.
On May 31, 1921, the local newspaper reported that a 19-year-old Black man was arrested and held at a courthouse on charges of attacking a 17-year-old white woman (this charge was later recanted).
Many rumors were riled up of a Black man raping a young white woman. A white mob gathered around the courthouse and, for the next two days, sent the 35 city blocks spanning Greenwood up in flames, burning and looting homes and businesses along the way. This event led to the deaths of nearly 300 people and injuries of approximately 800 people.
Image Credit: Vineyard Perspective / Shutterstock.com
Lessons from Black Wall Street
It has been more than 100 years and four generations since the destruction of Greenwood's Black Wall Street. Yet, the resulting impact on generational wealth for the descendants of those business owners still reverberates.
Rebuilding Amidst Destruction
Although the Race Massacre leveled the buildings of Greenwood, it did not destroy its spirit. The urge to rebuild spurred Greenwood's revival almost immediately after its destruction. Even as the Red Cross erected tents for the community, survivors used the legal system to ensure they held onto their land.
By the end of 1921, residents had rebuilt more than 800 buildings in the neighborhood. By June 1922, nearly all of the homes lost to the fires had been replaced. By 1925, the Black business association of its time, the National Negro Business League, was holding its annual conference in Tulsa, indicating Black Wall Street's restored role as an economic force in the community.
Ultimately, the progress made could not continue against the tide of too few resources within the Black community to restore the many lost businesses, the forces of urban development that cut highways through Greenwood's neighborhoods, and the Great Depression of 1929 hobbled the American economy.
Today numerous plaques reading, "Destroyed 1921. Not reopened," dot the landscape, commemorating the location of businesses that once were part of the very fabric of the neighborhood. The neighborhood's historic prosperity remains one block of Black-owned businesses and the Vernon Chapel AME Church.
The Power of Community Banking and Back-Owned Financial Institutions
Black residents in the Jackson Ward, the Greenwood district, and similar communities across the U.S. used a web of networks to finance businesses, homes, and side hustles. Banks, thrift clubs, and informal lending among neighbors, much like today's tech-enabled banking services and online financial forums provided by CapWay and others, served to help address the racial, wealth, and information gaps.
Recommended Read: How to Make Money Moves with a CapWay Debit Card
The increased awareness of discriminatory and predatory lending practices in Black and Brown communities has led to increased investment in Minority Depository Institutions, where minorities own most of the equity and play a crucial role in investing in underserved communities. The largest such effort to date has been the U.S. Treasury Department's planned $9 billion investment in minority and community lending institutions, announced in March 2021.
A Three-Dimensional Picture of Black Contributions to America
Black History Month is increasingly showcasing Black success and prosperity rather than an enslavement-centric narrative. Sharing the history of Black Wall Streets like Jackson Ward and Greenwood provides a fuller picture of Black contributions to American society. And embracing opportunities to learn about Black people and businesses' many accomplishments and the systemic forces that undermine this success, then and today, are critical to understanding and making progress against these obstacles.
Have you heard of the New Black Wall Street located in Stonecrest, Georgia? Learn more about the beautiful market here.
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Main Image Credit: Vineyard Perspective / Shutterstock.com