February is when many African-Americans dread the question “Why do we have/want/need a Black history month?” The question may be said in anger or with sincere curiosity. It is often asked by a person, who also cannot name one African-American-owned, white collar business or does not understand how current daily life (whether it is stopping at a red light or combing one’s hair or packing a peanut butter sandwich for a child’s lunch) is impacted. Black History Month is important for inspiring African-Americans, especially youth, and, for white Americans to correct the record, and become better educated about Arizona and US history.
It is particularly relevant, in this time of lingering double-digit Black unemployment, to learn about another era, when African-Americans were enjoying an economic prosperity, which has not been repeated since. On February 14, the Greater Phoenix Black Chamber of Commerce (GPBCC) held a breakfast in downtown Phoenix, which focused on economics past and present.
At the event, GPBCC CEO Kerwin Brown gave a talk about Black Wall Street. That was the nickname given to a town in Greenwood, a section of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Post-Civil War, it represented everything Reconstruction was supposed to deliver. In the early 1900’s, it was home to, not just the institutions (e.g., churches, restaurants) Americans associate with Blacks, but to Black-owned movie theaters, libraries, grocery stores, law offices, and private planes, as well as a public transportation system, bank, hospital, and post office. In all there were 600 Black-owned businesses and some of the richest people in the US.
During one day in June 1921, the Ku Klux Klan bombed and burned the town down, killing 3000 people: a carnage comparable to 9/11, except, in Tulsa's case, it took 90 years to publish an investigation.
There were similar tragedies elsewhere. The lesson, in addition to the injustices of their destruction, is to demonstrate, even to African-Americans, that Blacks have been and are capable of succeeding in business. There are unheralded Black business successes in Arizona’s history as well.
Karen Walker, owner of a Chandler project management company—Walker Consulting—and an inventor, is a descendent of Black Wall Street residents. “We were raised to believe we could create our own successful businesses,” she says.
It is important to teach each of our children, regardless of color, that, in addition to being able to become President, he/she can succeed as an entrepreneur.