Once Upon A Time On Wall Street

The struggle to establish an African American presence is a saga of ambition against overwhelming odds

of New Orleans, Louisiana, owned almost $50,000 worth of stock in Citizens Bank of Louisiana. A commission broker from the state of Louisiana, John Clay, also held a few shares in companies. Although the story cannot be verified, it is believed that in the pre3Civil War period, an African American tried to buy a seat on the then young but flourishing New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) only to have his offer rebuffed.

The denials and limitations within the big corporations and institutions such as the NYSE, because of racism and segregation, led many ambitious but realistic African Americans in the early 20th century to build thriving businesses within their own communities. This philosophy sparked one of the greatest successes of this period among people of color. Strangely, this explosion of capitalism developed in Tulsa, Oklahoma, miles away from lower Manhattan. This site was home to the development that would later be known as the Negro Wall Street. Although the town had nothing to do with New York’s Wall Street, the label described the tremendous growth and development of business within the 35-block radius known as the Greenwood District.

Like many regions throughout America in the early 1900s, Tulsa was divided by segregation. While some areas were hindered from substantial economic development by these Jim Crow policies, others were not. Many communities drew from their own talents and resources to create and build thriving businesses within their boundaries and Tulsa led this movement.

Restricted from hair salons, supermarkets, restaurants, and other white-owned business establishments, the black residents of Tulsa built their own. Other black communities spent their dollars at white businesses, despite being viewed as inferior. In contrast, the people of Tulsa realized the power of ownership. Because black shop owners provided all the needed services to cater to the black community, all monie
s and investment stayed within the community and it blossomed. In that 35-block span, there were 1,500 black-owned businesses and houses, including 10 millionaires and many families with substantial savings.

Perhaps that was too much progress for the attitudes of that time because racism wiped out all of that development and hope on a spring day in 1921. Hearing a rumor that a black man was accused of sexually assaulting a white woman (a charge of which he was cleared nearly 70 years later), a mob descended on the town and set it on fire. Thus the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 started. Millions of dollars were lost in damages and, more important, hundreds of lives were taken in the melee, bringing a sudden end to the Negro Wall Street. A sterling symbol of black self-reliance and success was destroyed, never to fully recover.

As Tulsa burned, other important black businessmen were founding, growing, and running their businesses in other black communities. Although they might not have known it at the time, these pioneers served two purposes: First, and most obvious, they were filling a need by giving their black communities products and services. Second, their example inspired the generations that followed,

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