What Happened to these Wealthy Black Communities?
New York City’s Wall Street is well-known for its towering skyscrapers and dapper stockbrokers, but how much do you know about “Black Wall Street”?
“Black Wall Street” is a moniker given to several predominantly Black neighborhoods throughout the country where African-Americans built flourishing local economies.
These robust communities were mainstays for African Americans following the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Each neighborhood prided itself on self-reliance and maintained its own Black-run banks, schools, libraries, and grocery stores.
The Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma is the most famous Black Wall Street neighborhood. Greenwood was a bustling metropolis filled with Black doctors, lawyers, and business owners who lived in breathtaking houses and supported their own.
Home to nearly 10,000 Black residents, the dollar circulated between 36 and 100 times within this community – remaining in Black hands for as long as a year. This camaraderie encouraged folks to support one another and look no further than their own neighborhood to provide the resources needed to navigate work and family life.
Unfortunately, Greenwood’s fame did not originate from its success as a center of Black wealth. Instead, its fame came after its destruction. In 1921, the KKK led one of the most brutal attacks ever recorded in history leaving 300 dead and over 9,000 Greenwood residents homeless.
After the town was violently ransacked by mobs of irate and envious whites, Black bodies were stacked in the streets like wood and never properly buried. In addition to the body count, 1,256 residences and 150 thriving businesses were burned down including 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, two movie theatres and a hospital. Greenwood would never fully rebuild.
Richmond, Virginia’s Jackson Ward neighborhood is the second most well-known Black Wall Street community. Considered “the birthplace of Black capitalism,” Jackson Ward centered on Black commerce and an enticing entertainment scene.
The local theatre was frequented by the likes of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, James Brown, and many others indicating the town’s prominence and national reputation. Of particular importance, Jackson Ward was home to the first bank chartered by an African-American woman in the United States. Unlike Greenwood, Jackson Ward was not destroyed; however, many residents eventually abandoned the area leading to a swift financial decline.
A third Black Wall Street neighborhood was located on Parrish Street in Durham, North Carolina. This community was led by two prominent Black businessmen named John Merrick and Charles Spalding. Unlike other Black Wall Streets, the Parrish Street district benefitted from a cooperative relationship with whites.
White elites from the Duke Family invested in the local economy, demonstrating a level of racial tolerance absent from other thriving Black communities in the South. By 1910, the North Carolina Mutual Bank on Parrish Street was considered the world’s largest Negro business and became a staple for both Blacks and whites alike. Regrettably, however, the majority of Black residents integrated into white neighborhoods following desegregation efforts, leaving Parrish Street to face a similar fate as Jackson Ward.
With the erosion of these historic Black neighborhoods, we lost a vibrant part of Black history. The tenacity and resilience required to create hubs of Black wealth exemplify what is possible in America, but their downfalls also show us the fragility of economic advancement in a racialized society. It is difficult to imagine the impact these communities would have today had they survived. Do you think we need to revive the idea of these self-sufficient Black communities? Let us know!
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