By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on September 20, 2018
My recent article on the history of American Beach prompted me to publicly ask this thought-provoking but controversial question: From an economic, educational, networking, and community development standpoint, are blacks in America worse off today than we were a hundred years ago?
The advancements and achievements highlighted in this article were exceptional at the time, given the total absence of black elected officials in the South from the end of the Reconstruction era in 1877 to the beginning of the desegregation era of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.
“Black Wall Street”
Greenwood is a historic freedom colony in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It had one of the most prominent concentrations of African-American businesses in the United States during the early 1900s and was popularly known as America's "Black Wall Street." In 1921, the Oklahoma state government, with the assistance of Tulsa's white residents, massacred hundreds of black residents and razed this neighborhood within hours. This race riot was one of the most devastating massacres in the history of U.S. race relations, destroying the once thriving Greenwood community.
Within five years after the massacre, surviving residents who chose to remain in Tulsa rebuilt much of the business district. They accomplished this despite the opposition of many white Tulsa political and business leaders and punitive rezoning laws enacted to prevent reconstruction. It resumed being a vital black community until racial segregation was outlawed in the 1950s and 1960s.
The desegregation of American society allowed blacks in Tulsa to live and shop elsewhere in the city. This, in turn, caused Greenwood to lose much of its economic vitality.
Today, there is no “Black Wall Street.” Only 20 or so black-owned businesses are among the 3,671 companies that are publicly traded on Wall Street.
Access to capital is an essential building block for economic vitality and sustained community development. More than a century ago, the economic realities imposed by segregation required African-Americans to pool their resources their resources and help each other.
Black-owned banks were part of this long tradition. From the end of the Reconstruction era in 1887 to the beginning of the Great Depression in 1929, more than 130 black-owned banks opened for business and provided capital to black entrepreneurs and prospective homeowners at a time when it was too expensive or impossible to get money elsewhere. As a result of these banks, the number of black-owned businesses rose from 4,000 in 1867 to a peak of 50,000 in 1917.
Today, there are only 19 black-owned banks in the United States. One of these banks is mine -- Alamerica Bank in Birmingham, which opened in January of 2000. State and federal regulators in the United States have not chartered another black-owned bank since Alamerica was issued its state charter and FDIC insurance in 2000. Alamerica is the only black-owned, full-service bank ever chartered by the State of Alabama.
Black America’s Intellectual Mecca
From the 1880s through most of the 20th century, Macon County, Alabama was the intellectual "Mecca" for African-Americans. The County is home to famed Tuskegee University, one of the world's top universities in the 20th century. In 1912, Tuskegee's board members included Sears and Roebuck founder and chairman, Julius Rosenwald, and a host of other leading American industrialists.
By the 1940s, some of Tuskegee's academic offerings and research programs pre-dated and outpaced those of racially segregated “white” universities in Alabama. For example, Tuskegee offered a baccalaureate degree in nursing in 1948. In contrast, The University of Alabama did not commence a comparable nursing program until 1950.
Macon County introduced the world to Booker T. Washington, founder and long-time president of Tuskegee University, and George Washington Carver, one of the most prolific and celebrated inventors of his times. Dr. Carver’s pioneering work with the peanut is legendary and has been chronicled worldwide. Tuskegee University was also home to the historic “Tuskegee Airman”, America’s first black aviators whose heroics during World War II are unparalleled in the annals of military air combat. Additionally, the University's campus was designed by architect Robert Robinson Taylor, the first African-American to graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Perceived as a spokesman for black “industrial” education, Booker T. Washington developed a network of wealthy American philanthropists who generously contributed their money, time, and resources to the University. These individuals included Henry Ford, Andrew Carnegie, Collis P. Huntington, John D. Rockefeller, Henry Huttleston Rogers, George Eastman, and Elizabeth Milbank Anderson. The University's strategic relationships with these key supporters propelled Tuskegee to international prominence.
The faces of Tuskegee University’s two most distinguished leaders (i.e., Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver) were printed on two sets of U.S. Postal stamps and engraved on two sets of half dollars in circulation in the 1940s and 1950s. This remarkable achievement occurred years before the birth of the civil rights era in the mid-1950s and 1960s.
Macon County was the pride and joy of African-Americans throughout the world. It was a thriving community with a respected black middle class, a university known worldwide for its academic excellence, and a world famous Veterans Administration medical facility. Presidents of the United States regularly visited Macon County and its African-American leaders.
Today, Macon County is struggling to stay afloat economically and otherwise. One third of the County’s population lives below the poverty line. The County's public schools are struggling to secure adequate funding and employ highly qualified teachers.
Even though it is surrounded by a sea of poverty, Tuskegee University continues to offer 40 bachelor's degree programs, 17 master's degree programs, a 5-year accredited professional degree program in architecture, 4 doctoral degree programs, and the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. The University is home to over 3,100 students from the U.S. and 30 foreign countries. Tuskegee University was ranked among 2018's best 379 colleges and universities by The Princeton Review and 6th among the 2018 U.S. News & World Report best HBCUs.
Civil Rights Giants
Unlike today’s feeble black political and community leaders, civil rights giants like Charles Hamilton Houston, Thurgood Marshall, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Ralph David Abernathy, Johnnie Carr, Fannie Lou Hamer, E.D. Nixon, Fred Shuttlesworth, John Lewis, Wyatt Tee Walker, Constance Baker Motley, and many others of their ilk boldly led a movement for freedom and justice that literally transformed the political, educational, economic, and judicial landscape of America under the most difficult of circumstances. They worked long and hard to implement community-based goals and were unrelenting in their efforts to improve the overall quality of life for African-American communities across the nation.
Today’s black elected and appointed political officials are mostly “photo op” figures who do very little, if anything, to adequately represent the interests of their constituents. Quite often, they function as “pack mules” for the special interest groups that fund their political campaigns or sponsor their appointments to public office.
For example, an African-American former state representation in Birmingham, Alabama pleaded guilty in September of 2017 to taking bribes from major polluters to persuade his constituents to oppose a federally mandated EPA cleanup of contaminated neighborhoods in his legislative district. He was aided in this cause by the president of the local chapter of the NAACP, who is also black.
The “Vision” Thing
For most of the 20th century, America’s black community revered its religious leaders, educational figures, businessmen/women, working class, and women who had the vision necessary to shape and elevate the community’s socio-economic status. Today, the African-American community glorifies athletes, entertainers, self-appointed “bishops” of mega churches, and other celebrity figures.
The “vision” thing is gone. For the most part, it has been replaced with “buck-dancing”, kowtowing, and self-centered, personalized “hustling.”
Our religious leaders are way too busy establishing “personality-based” ministries that emphasis the size of their mega-churches and the opulence of their mansions, luxury cars, and private jets. If the next Martin Luther King, Jr. is among them, we cannot find him/her.
Lost in the “Promise Land”
In 1968, Dr. King was assassinated leading African-Americans and whites of interracial goodwill to the “Promise Land”. Once we arrived there in the 2000s, African-Americans became lost in irrelevancy. Unless this undesirable socio-economic trend is reversed, irrelevancy will become a permanent state of being for blacks in America.
PHOTO: Henry Ford (left) with George Washington Carver (right). These two men enjoyed a close personal friendship and productive working relationship while Carver pioneered in paradigm-shifting, high impact research projects at Tuskegee University during the early 1900s.