Many Black conservatives often fantasize about the era of Jim Crow with rose-colored glasses.
Those people say, “it was better under Jim Crow because we knew where we stand.” The implication was that the Apartheid rules fostered Black Businesses’ construction that ended with the end of legal Apartheid.
At the same time, they also discuss Black Wall Street and the burnings of Black towns, sometimes called Freedman Towns.
They never seem to notice the timeline.
Black towns and Black Wall Streets came into existence before Jim Crow, not because of it.
“By 1888, at least 200 Black towns and communities had been established nationwide.” Here is a sampling of some of the more famous communities.
In Dallas, Texas, Black people were living in the Deep Ellum Neighborhood by 1872.
Pocahontas Island, Virginia, was the oldest documented Black Municipality; by 1861, it was being called “A Black Confederate.”
Pennytown, Missouri, was founded in 1871.
Sugarland, Maryland, was founded in 1871.
In Tulsa, the Greenwood neighborhood, known as the “Black Wall Street,” official founding date was 1901, but Black people were there as early as the 1880s.
Jim Crow got its legal bearing in 1896 with Plessy v. Ferguson, and that legal case began to bear strange fruit in 1910, becoming mature in 1919 during Red Summer under president Woodrow Wilson.
Thus Black Communities history begins before Jim Crow. But did Jim Crow facilitate it? That’s the more difficult question.
The problem is that the Black community could never make enough money to survive only servicing Black people. This has often been the case. It is simple economics and math. A Black town could not survive just servicing the small Black middle class and recently freed enslaved people.
Black businessmen worked with white businessmen, it would be impossible to survive in an economically segregated environment.
A classic example of white facilitation of black businesses was one of the important founders of Greenwood. Ottowa W (O.W.) Gurley built the Gurley Hotel, a three-story brick building in the heart of Greenwood.
Greenwood’s wealth existed not because of its absence or the absence of white people, but due to collaboration with the white economic system.
“As hundreds of African Americans emigrated to Greenwood for the oil boom, O.W. became increasingly wealthy. Gurley boasting a reported net worth of $150,000 ($3.6 million adjusted for inflation). Gurley leveraged this fortune to launch a Black Masonic lodge and an employment agency, while bankrolling efforts to resist Black voter suppression in the state.”
Black Wall Street existed because Black people could trade and do business with white people. Those towns burned due to calls for segregation, NOT integration.
Black towns were not segregated. Black people self-selected to live in Black towns, and some Black people lived in mixed communities.
Many examples of such mixed communities can be found in the histories of important radicals and leaders of the time. In Boston, Williams Trotter lived with many African Americans in mixed immigrant neighborhoods, see the book about his life “The Life and Times of William Trotter, the Black Radical,” by Kerri Greenidge.
In Texas, Black anarchist Lucy Parsons married to white anarchist Albert Parsons. Later, they moved to Chicago where they were actively organizing labor until the Haymarket Massacre. Lucy continued to live in Chicago after Albert was legally lynched by the state of Illinois.
No, it wasn’t paradise, but the Black “Candide’s Garden” that some in the Black community say they long for, was not constructed under Jim Crow. That dream of Black America was distorted, tortured, and destroyed by Jim Crow.
Black towns were part of what I call radical integration (socially, for the most part, segregated, but the Black middle income and upper class economically integrated into white society) and small merchant capitalism. These institutions were ultimately destroyed by big companies and violent racism.
Many whites also long for that period from 1865 to 1917, because their businesses could compete. After WWI, the large catalog merchants and industrial manufacturers began to squeeze out the smaller and mid-sized competition.
Black business burned owing to ideas of white supremacy and whites being pushed out of big business. White people with a scarcity of clients took their resentment out on the Black community.
They destroyed the Black community to get their clients.
There would be no need to burn a business if it wasn’t making money. White racial resentment was not solely because of their neighboring town’s Blackness, but also because the white business owners and Black business owners were competing for the same customer base, which even today is still predominantly white.
Reconstruction and the facilitation of Black Institutions supported 50 years of Black progress.
Reconstruction was an extension of Southern states’ occupation by the Union Army to prevent the recurrence of the political structures that might flare up again. Also, they wanted the formerly enslaved people to be thankful and vote Republican.
Andrew Johnson was the president that succeeded after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson was a firm believer in states’ rights. His failure to adhere to the vision of Reconstruction led to Congressional Intervention. Congress pushed through many acts of legislation that supported in Black people’s progress. The period between 1867-1877 was called Radical Reconstruction. Black men could vote and were granted all rights of citizenship by law, and those laws, for the most part, were enforced, including the right to vote, as guaranteed by the 14th and 15th Amendments. Through the Union League, the US government encouraged the political activism of African Americans, and that included the South. During the state constitutional conventions held in 1867-69, Blacks and white Americans stood side by side for the first time in political life.
During this time, Black people could vote in the South. Black people could be elected to office. Today, we associated the history of Mississippi with Southern Intransigence and Racial Violence. Mississippi Goddam! But Reconstruction Mississippi had two Black senators and a Black lieutenant governor.
There were over 1,500 African American officeholders during Reconstruction. The first African American senators were elected during Reconstruction.
- Sen. Hiram Revels (R-MS)
- Rep. Benjamin S. Turner (R-AL)
- Robert DeLarge (R-SC)
- Josiah Walls (R-FL)
- Jefferson Long (R-GA)
- Joseph Rainey and Robert B. Elliott (R-SC)
- 1871 in Arkansas, James. M Alexander was the first African American justice of the peace as well as postmaster, school trustee, and grand jury member.
- In Mississippi, Thomas Cardozo served as the first Black school superintendent from 1874-1876.
Black people had medical schools and doctors.
Between 1865 and 1910, Black people opened up 14 medical schools.
Black people went to Harvard.
WEB DuBois graduated with a Ph.D. from Havard in 1895.
Two of the first African-American banks– the Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of the Reformers, in Richmond, Virginia, and Capital Savings Bank of Washington, DC, opened their doors in 1888.
This all happened before Jim Crow got a foothold; this all ended after Jim Crow.
Lynching happened before Jim Crow, but after, it was practically legal and encouraged and much more prevalent. Lynching officially starts in 1882, the vast majority occurring after 1900.
We should also address the movements in the white working class that led to the Republican Party making their “Sophie’s Choice”: do I save the Black Republicans in the South by continuing Reconstruction or do I save the white businesses in the north from having to pay living wages in response to Industrial Organizing Labor Unions.
After the Civil War, you had a rise of the white labor unions and the northerner industrialists and the construction of the great Monopoly trusts in Oil, Coal, Sugar, Tobacco, Finance, Railroads, Steel, Mining. These trusts were owned by wealthy individuals who supported the Republican Party. For white workers, labor unions were the only force that could confront and stand up to these large companies.
Many craft labor unions had strict memberships to retain their middle-class skills within their members’ families.
The American Federation of Labor was organized on December 8, 1886 signaling the labor movement’s rise. All major unions of the day excluded Black people, including the powerful the Knights of Labor.
The Republicans (white progressive) had a choice? More voters via courting the Black South or control of the Northern white labor force.
Between 1880 to 1910, the United States nearly doubled in population. In the 1800s, only 6 percent of the people lived in towns of more than 2,500. By 1920 more than half of the United States lived in cities of more than 10,000 people.
Those were votes.
Because the South was a recovering, burned-out, mostly rural area with fewer votes, Republicans chose to call off Reconstruction and cede the South to the Southern Dixiecrats.
Who is in office matters.
Black people were lynched, tortured, raped, and denied the right to vote. Black people could not obtain home loans, were forcibly segregated into communities, those communities that were targeted by white supremacists & terrorists, and over-policing, so the inhabitants could not leave.
There is nothing beautiful about Jim Crow Laws. Jim Crow Laws were the wannabe crow cousins of Huginn and Munin that inhabited the gallows and brought little thought and only bitter memories.
Segregation fueled by Jim Crow grievously harmed generations of Black people.
There is nothing worse than tasting freedom, and having it snatched away, and that was what Jim Crow did.
Who was chosen for president and who we choose to represent us in Congress greatly impacted not just how Black people live, but in the past how Black people were tortured and murdered.
Andrew Johnson ~ 17th President (1865-1869), greatly slowed the progress of Reconstruction. He offered amnesty, property rights, and voting rights to all but the highest Confederate officials (most of whom he pardoned a year later). He later ordered the return of land to pardoned Confederates, null and voided those wartime orders that granted Blacks forty acres and a mule. Congress unraveled most of his treachery, but a great opportunity to stomp on the South for once and all was lost. The 40 acres and a mule, this man took that away.
After the election of November 6, 1866, Congress struck back at Johnson. They imposed their Reconstruction policies, referred to by historians as “Radical Reconstruction.” These policies empower the Freedman’s Bureau and set reform efforts in motion that will lead to the 14th and 15th Amendments, which, respectively, grant citizenship to all (male) persons born in the United States regardless of race and extend suffrage without regard to “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
While the rights guaranteed by the three (Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) “Reconstruction Amendments” are challenged by state and local laws later in the 19th century using the Tenth Amendment as the weapons, they are an unprecedented extension of civil rights. Those three would form the legal cornerstone of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
Thomas Woodrow Wilson ~ 28th President (1913-1921), unapologetically backed what he called the “great Ku Klux Klan.” His rhetoric inspired red summer in 1919, where white mobs set Black people’s town on fire. He encouraged the Klan’s violent disenfranchisement of Black people in the late 19th century. Wilson’s record as president was his overseeing of the resegregation of multiple federal government agencies, which had been integrated as a result of Radical Reconstruction decades earlier.
In the coming years after Jim Crow and under the Wilson presidency, thousands of Black people would be lynched, the Klan would continue to rise to terrorize Black people with states’ approval for over 50 years, and the groundwork was laid for the prison industrial complex.
It took Black people over 80 years to even begin to recover from the damage that was done owing to who people voted for.
The United States, at its core, will always have a white supremacist streak running through it, but I will continue to disagree that who holds the seat of our highest office has no bearing on the empowerment of that streak, because it clearly does.