From Rags to Riches - Part I

02/11/2016 09:23

by Chris Campbell


It’s a story that I read late last year. And it haunted me for weeks. I couldn’t believe it. What was most disturbing to me, though, was that I had never heard it before. That it had been wiped clean from the “official” history books.  The beginning of this story is a testimony to what can be done when people are simply left alone by the state and oppression and are given even a little bit of freedom.

Unfortunately, this story is also a harrowing account of what takes place when we let ignorance, fear, and the desire to control take over our humanity. And what monstrosities we are capable of when that happens.

The year was 1900. Black slavery was a generation gone.

The United States was just beginning to boom from black gold. And, with more freedoms than they’d ever had, many entrepreneurial blacks began capitalizing on all the fresh -- and readily available -- money flowing around.

“Though segregation laws were still on the books,” financial author Joshua Kennon writes on his blog of the same name, “and they were forbidden from true free market exchanges in the form of artificial restraints based on race, some of these business-minded Americans amassed multi-million dollar empires by supplying the goods and services needed by markets overlooked by the white establishment.”

One African American woman, for example, Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C.J. Walker, created a line of cosmetic and hair products under her company Madam C.J. Walker Manufacturing Company.

Though she was met with, as you can imagine, no shortage of resistance, she became the very first self-made female millionaire in America. Not, mind you, the first black self-made female millionaire -- but the first female millionaire. And this was when a million dollars of today’s money had the buying power of 23 million. Breedlove was just one example of the burgeoning self-made wealthy blacks.

Many of them, around 1907, had discovered a new state called Oklahoma through promotional material -- called “boosters” -- that were spread across the U.S. touting Oklahoma as the place of free land, full citizenship rights, and escape from bigotry.

Many were called. And many came. Successful black doctors, accountants, attorneys, and other professionals heeded this call and moved their lives to Tulsa, Oklahoma to help build something new.

Specifically, they settled in a long stretch of land beginning at the corner of Archer Ave. and Greenwood St., a district separated from the white neighborhoods. They lined the streets with beautiful homes. They built shops and created a vibrant economic ecosystem. And they called the district Greenwood.

“It was a miracle of capitalism,” says Kennon, “that could trace its roots twenty years prior to a handful of men who cast their eyes into the future, convinced others to pool their resources, and risked everything to start businesses for which there was little historical precedent.”

Starting with relatively little, but taking full advantage of the state’s boom and their collective capital, Greenwood eventually became the most affluent all-black communities in America. In a little over a decade, from 1910 to 1920, the community had built banks, libraries, grocery stores, pawn shops, jewelry stores, 21 churches, 21 restaurants and two movie theaters.

In all, the area was made up of about nearly 200 businesses taking up 36 blocks, with a population of around 10,000. And the community was a tight-knit bunch: “The dollar,” the San Francisco Bay View Newspaper said, “circulated 36 to 100 times, sometimes taking a year for the currency to leave the community.”

One young woman named Mabel B. Little, at the age of seventeen, arrived from Boley, Oklahoma on train with only $1.25 in her pocket.

She later described the scene to a reporter:

“Black businesses flourished. I remember Huff’s Cafe on Cincinnati and Archer. It was a thriving meeting place in the black community. You could go there almost anytime, and just about everybody who was anybody would be there or on their way.

“There was also two popular barbeque spots, Tipton’s and Uncle Steve’s. J.D. Mann had a grocery store. His wife was a music teacher. We had two funeral parlors, owned by morticians Sam Jackson and Hardel Ragston. Down on what went by the name of “Deep Greenwood” was a clique of eateries, a panorama of lively dance halls, barber shops and theatres glittering in the night light, and a number of medical and dental offices.”

Simon Berry, another Greenwood resident, in a time when the only taxi service in town was for whites only, started his own using his topless Model-T. A nickel would get you a ride all the way up and down the street -- and he’d take as many who would dare cram in or hang on.

Later, with the money he made from this venture, Simon built a garage on Archer Street, where he trained black mechanics. Then, with that money, Simon bought buses. And his mechanics became the bus drivers. With those buses, he transported blacks who worked downtown or in South Tulsa to and from work.

“At the peak of his operations,” the book Black Wall Street by Hannibal B. Johnson reads, “Berry reportedly made as much as $500 a day -- a phenomenal sum at the time.” Yeah… that’s about $6,750 in today’s cash. Or $2.5 million per year.

In 1926, Berry acquired some land and established a city park on thirteen acres of it. He built a community swimming pool, a dance hall, and picnic grounds. Then provided transportation to and from the park.

Then, becoming one of Oklahoma’s first African-American aviators, Berry bought a plane. Then he and his business partner, a black businessman named James Lee Northington began their own airline charter service, catering to many wealthy black and white businessmen. The entire state of Oklahoma owned only two airports. Yet six blacks in Greenwood owned their own planes.

Greenwood was an unbelievable triumph in the midst of many tragedies that befell the African Americans in the past few hundred centuries.

But then… after all that hard work and investment… it all came crashing down. And in less than 24 hours, it was burnt to the ground.

END Part I.


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