Every August, Black Business Month reminds us all to support and appreciate the contributions of Black-owned businesses. In addition, it is the perfect time to reflect on the history of Black owned business and acknowledge the challenges Black communities have faced and how those challenges impact society today.
On May 31, 1921, the most thriving Black entrepreneurial community in the U.S. was battered by hordes of white mobs—burning over 1,400 homes and commercial buildings, killing or injuring hundreds of residents (primarily Black), and leaving almost 10,000 people homeless. This neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was officially named Greenwood but had taken the nickname “Black Wall Street” due to the prosperity of Black-founded and owned businesses.
Following the Tulsa massacre—often referred to as the worst ever occurrence of racial violence in the U.S.—the term “Black Wall Street” acquired an association with senseless violence that it would carry forever. However, it is critical that Americans look beyond the apparent acts of violence here and see the massacre as an escalation of economic and geographic racism.
The Bigger Picture
The bigger picture involves less-obvious acts that previously have and continue to take away Black generational wealth: housing policies, urban renewal initiatives, allocation of resources, and more. Something that might seem mundane—like the decision to build highways or subway lines with a promise to improve communities—disproportionately negatively affects Black communities’ wealth.
Tulsa’s Black Wall Street is not the only Black Wall Street to exist and certainly not the only Black entrepreneurial district with a significant history. Durham, North Carolina, and its Hayti community, which held many thriving Black-owned businesses in the late 1800s and early 1900s, has a rich history of Black entrepreneurship—with businesses both big and small. While this city has the oldest minority-created bank (M&F) and has many modern stories of Black success, much of what once existed as a hub for Black innovation in Hayti was ruined by urban renewal plans.
Another lesser-known Black Wall Street is the Jackson Ward district of Richmond, Virginia.
Newly freed slaves landed in this area, and shortly after, it grew into one of the first economically vibrant Black communities. In a story that’s almost too predictable, the fall of this Black Wall Street directly resulted from plans to improve and rebuild the city. These plans were created and enforced by all-white committees.
This Black Business Month, we encourage you to reflect on the history of Black entrepreneurship within districts made up of Black-owned businesses.
Past events, including the rise and fall of Black Wall Street communities, directly impacted the playing field today—and understanding this is just one part of understanding the importance of diversity in business. Generations have been robbed of wealth and opportunity and blocked out of redevelopment.
Moving forward with actual economic and social growth for all requires a closer look at why these Black Wall Street communities existed and why they may have declined.
Black and Brown people still face systemic and institutional racism in the United States. The missing horrific massacre of Black Wall Street from the archives of history books reflects that bias. Despite that, the spirit and tenacity of Black Wall Street continue to live on and thrive in cities across the country, online, and as a business mindset for Black entrepreneurship.