Being born in Durham, N.C., I vividly recall hearing throughout my childhood that the city was once a great city for black professionals. From America’s oldest black-owned insurance company, North Carolina Mutual, to its oldest black-owned bank, Mechanics and Farmers Bank, Durham has strong roots in black entrepreneurship. Growing up here gave me access to families whose legacies directly changed the course of that era in history. It felt good to know that such greatness was within earshot of me every Sunday at the historic White Rock Baptist Church.
Durham wasn’t the only Black Wall Street of the time. During the last quarter of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th, there were numerous self-sustaining predominantly black communities. It is easy to point out the notable others, such as Tulsa, Harlem, Atlanta, Chicago, Rosewood, and Washington, D.C., to name a few. These places, like many others across the United States, encouraged keeping dollars circulating within the community to provide growth opportunities and stability.
Sadly, stories of Black Wall Streets are often accompanied by stories of white saboteurs. These Black Wall Streets were the belles of their respective balls, leaving them to bear the wrath of envious neighborhoods in the vicinity. From destruction to gerrymandering to outright mass murders, many of these economic powerhouses were reduced to nothing and those who had built them were often forced to choose between fleeing for their lives or staying to protect their livelihoods.
Jump forward in time to a new millennium and you’ll see a resurgence of black excellence. From entrepreneurship to venture capitalism to the AfroTech movement, blacks are stepping back into their own and redeveloping Black Wall Street. With the help of this thing called “the Internet” (no, not the music group), geographic boundaries no longer restrict what businesses you can support. E-commerce has opened up a new avenue of support for those of us investing in Black Wall Street. If Customer A lives in an area without the types of black-owned businesses he wants to patronize, as long as he has a credit or debit card and a deliverable address, he can support the business of his choice.
Black Wall Street was never about discrimination on our end but, instead, about economic survival. Policies that were put into place by the government forced blacks to create their own societies. Though segregation is illegal, there is a still a very wide racial wealth gap within the United States. In order to close that gap, ownership is important but equally important is patronage. In the early to mid-1900s, The Negro Motorist Green Book was the go-to for black people who were looking for places they were welcomed across the United States. Many of the businesses listed here were black-owned and would provide travelers hundreds of places they would be welcomed to find rest and nourishment. As you can assume, every hotel and restaurant was not a safe place for people of all races. While such blatant discrimination is illegal today, those who are focused on supporting black businesses can do so with an easy Google search. Sites like Official Black Wall Street and United States Black Chambers, Inc. provide thorough, though not exhaustive, directories of black-owned businesses across the nation.
Some people say that equality begins with education. I beg to differ. Equality begins with economic empowerment, which leads to better education. Without the tax dollars, there is no way for a community to keep up with the advances in learning these days, which leaves some students light-years behind their more privileged counterparts. This leads to despondency in the classroom, which often leads to minor offenses that eventually compound into more serious charges. We don’t have a crime problem in the black community as much as we have an economic problem, of which one of the results is crime.
Whether you’re black, white, brown, or blue, if you’re about social justice and leveling the playing field, you must realize that economic empowerment is the only way that communities of color can ever truly thrive. I look at Durham and, since I left for college and returned almost a decade later, it has undergone a complete transformation. A city that was nearly on life support at the turn of the millennium is now thriving but, sadly, it’s not because of Black Wall Street. North Carolina began to reinvest in Durham when gentrification occurred. White dollars were flooding the area and driving up the cost of living so the city and state said, “Let’s put some money behind their money and make this place hip again.”
Initially, I was frustrated that it took white people moving into a community largely populated by blacks to make the government reinvest in it, but that is how capitalism works. And it’s not just happening in Durham. That being understood, as black-owned businesses are popping up in different parts of the nation, we have to support them in order to get better schools, better policing, and a more dependable infrastructure. The more revenue that is generated by black businesses in black neighborhoods, the better the educational opportunities for the children of the neighborhood. Additionally, the policing and roadways will improve, making consumers, regardless of ethnicity, more likely to patronize that side of town. But if no one who lives in the community owns a part of the community, do you think anyone will be investing in it the way its own citizens would? No way. If you want your neighborhood to be a healthier and happier place, it makes sense to recycle your dollars in it, as the Spaulding family did for Durham or the Franklin family did for Tulsa over a century ago.
THE (OTHER) SOLUTION
You have an idea. You want to start working for yourself. You’re creative but lack the knowledge it requires to start a functioning, legitimate business. Well, you’re in luck! The world wide web is an awesome resource full of even more awesome resources. I’d start with the United States Small Business Administration to develop a business plan. Just like I tell high school students applying for college, go for the free money first. Save up from your current job and apply for federal, state, and local grants. Next, either look to investors who will want a return on their start-up dollars or, if you can find a good rate, work with a (preferably black-owned) bank to secure the money you need.
Do not tell everyone about your idea but bounce it off a few trustworthy, forward-thinking people in your circle. Make sure they are not going to just say it is a good idea. Ask them to play devil’s advocate and poke holes in your thought process. You need to have thought through every foreseeable issue you will face and maybe even some of the illogically unforeseeable ones. (For example, imagine if Blockbuster had thought of Redbox and Netflix while coming up with their business plans.)
Once you figure out how you can pay for the startup costs of your business and how to monetize it, go for it. Believe in yourself. Start legitimate so you don’t have to pay back taxes and so that your dollars can help build up your community.
BLACK WALL STREET IS BACK
Whether you’re looking at JAY-Z’s ownership of Roc Nation or Marcus Hawley’s accessories company Natty Neckware, black entrepreneurship is, once again, a hot topic as it was in the decades surrounding 1900. The businesses are there. Sure, they may not be as large as Nordstrom or Sony (yet), but they can be. All it takes is intentionally supporting great products/services from great minds in a community that most overlook. Priceline isn’t going to miss your dollars if you don’t book your vacation through them. Travel Noire will. Play an intentional and impactful role in changing the narrative. Help us rebuild Black Wall Street.
Black history can never be forgotten, but the future of our Black America is something to be shed light on. Black culture’s ownership of its leverage and economic impact in sports, film/television, fashion, and music is being unapologetically claimed. Get ready for the #NewBlackRenaissance.
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