“Started From the Bottom, Now We’re Here”: How Black Wall Street & Bus Boycotts Can Inform Our Financial Future
For some, Booker T. Washington has gone down in Black History as an “Uncle Tom.” Independent of how you may feel about all of his philosophies, I think we can all agree that he got it right when he said, “At the bottom of education, at the bottom of politics, even at the bottom of religion, there must be for our race economic independence.”
As we continue to find our financial footing as a community, we can look back to Black models of financial excellence: where we used our money to make moves and establish business acumen as one to be feared and respected. Two key models were that of Black Wall Street and The Montgomery Bus Boycott; the former showcases Black business brilliance while the latter shows Black folk wielded their collective financial power for political progress and social good.
Black Wall Street
Prior to its destruction in what history calls The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, Tulsa enjoyed a thriving Black-owned business infrastructure and anchored itself as a hub in the oil industry. Dubbed the “Black Wall Street” by Booker T. Washington or The Magic City by its locals, this Black commerce Mecca in Oklahoma, throughout the early 1900s, was nothing short of impressive. During that era, Black Wall Street swelled with over 600 businesses including 21 churches, 21 restaurants and two movie theaters. It also owned four different railroads and its own commercial airport with six Blacks owning their own planes. Black Wall Street also controlled their own media. They owned two daily newspapers, the Tulsa World and the Tulsa Tribune, and a handful of weeklies. Even though radio has not arrived yet, the city was connected to the outside world through four different telegraph companies.
Downtown Tulsa included seven banks, post offices, libraries, medical schools, dozens of insurance agencies, investment advisers, private-owned bus system, accounting firms, real estate agencies, law firms, and loan companies. In addition, the people of Tulsa had many Black-owned businesses in which they could patronize; Tulsa was awash with jewelry stores, grocery stores, furniture stores, restaurants, pawn shops, cafes, billiard halls, and even brothels. It has been estimated that the dollar in Black Wall Street circulated 36 to 100 times, sometimes taking a year for currency to leave the community.
Montgomery Bus Boycott
Six decades later, we leveraged our economic resources in Montgomery, AL to wield political power and social justice in order to end the institution of segregation and usher in the first wave of the Civil Rights Movement.
In Montgomery during the 1950s, the majority of bus riders were Black, but city regulations required that they not only sit in the rear of buses, but also had to give their seats to a white person when all the seats in front were filled. When Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat, she was arrested and jailed. Even though Parks wasn’t the first person to protest the laws, her arrest galvanized Montgomery’s Black community to boycott the National City Lines, which was owned the Montgomery Bus Line at that time.
After Park’s arrest, the Women’s Political Council printed and circulated a flyer throughout Montgomery’s Black community reminding black people about their financial power and calling for a swift, deliberate collective economic response:
“Another Negro woman has been arrested and thrown in jail because she refused to get up out of her seat on the bus for a white person to sit down. It is the second time since the Claudette Colvin case that a Negro woman has been arrested for the same thing. This has to be stopped. Negroes have rights too, for if Negroes did not ride the buses, they could not operate. Three-fourths of the riders are Negro, yet we are arrested, or have to stand over empty seats. If we do not do something to stop these arrests, they will continue. The next time it may be you, or your daughter, or mother. This woman’s case will come up on Monday. We are, therefore, asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial. Don’t ride the buses to work, to town, to school, or anywhere on Monday. You can afford to stay out of school for one day if you have no other way to go except by bus. You can also afford to stay out of town for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off all buses Monday.”
And so, on December 5, 1955, the boycott began. While the city buses were nearly empty, sidewalks were crowded with Blacks walking to work. Others carpooled or took cabs; Black cab drivers lowered their fares in solidarity. The city recognized immediately it had a huge problem on its hands. Without Black people’s economic input via fares, the bus company of Montgomery faced probable bankruptcy.
Not only was it facing monumental financial losses, it also saw for the first time that a politically unified Black community had the power to usurp the policy of segregation on public transportation. For 381 days, despite violent, unwarranted harassment, and no protection from the state or federal government, the boycott endured. When it finally ended on December 27, 1956, it was a complete victory for the Black community. It showed the city, state, and nation Black economic clout, forced the Montgomery bus companies to desegregate their lines, and lay the precedent for systemic change.
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