- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

In this first Black History Month of the century, let's give our forebears a tribute they deserve. Let's the lift the gag rule on discussion of a legacy of black enterprise and innovative economic progress.

Today, much of what passes in academia as "black history" is at best, incomplete and, at worst, revisionist. It focuses almost exclusively on the degradation whites have imposed on blacks and the agenda of the civil rights establishment since the 1960s. Conveniently air-brushed from the portrait of black America are the remarkable accomplishments of black entrepreneurs and mutual-aid societies that were achieved even during eras of the most brutal racial repression and slavery. Lost is the legacy of self-help, personal responsibility, and principle-based entrepreneurship that could provide today's youths with pride in their heritage and an adaptable model that could guide their futures.

We should let our young people know that, even before the Civil War, many free blacks made their livings as owners of small shops. In the late 1700s, for example, the city of Philadelphia was a community abounding in both small and large enterprises owned by blacks. Among these was a sail-making business whose owner, James Forten, became a millionaire. During this same era, Baltimore was one of the main centers of commerce for black enterprise. The black entrepreneurs who carved a pathway to success did not possess any special advantages. Nearly half of them had been bought out of slavery by loved ones who had saved enough money to free them.

In Cincinnati, blacks owned engineering firms, brick factories, and other small enterprises. Blacks in New York City were also very active in business development between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. They owned some of the best restaurants on Wall Street and were known for their expertise in tailoring. Free blacks in Southern cities developed service enterprises, such as catering, which were so superior that they monopolized the field. At the eve of the Civil War, the combined assets of enterprising blacks totaled $50 million in 1860 currency. Black entrepreneurs included barbers, blacksmiths, grocers, tailors, restaurateurs, caterers, carpenters and shoemakers.

After the Civil War and the Emancipation, this same determination and will to achieve inspired remarkable economic and educational achievements among blacks who were just emerging from an era of oppression and slavery. Black progress in the 30 years following slavery surpassed achievements in the 30 years following the civil rights victories of the 1960s. The per-capita income of blacks skyrocketed by 300 percent during the first half-century of freedom. Between 1865 and 1892, the number of black newspapers increased from two to 154; attorneys from two to 250; and physicians from three to 749.

When blacks were excluded from participation in the larger market economy, they established their own banks and insurance companies. At the turn of the century, for example, John Merrick, a black entrepreneur, established the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. in Durham. When the company was just a fledgling business and its first claim of $40 came due, there was so little money in the treasury that the officers contributed their own money to pay it. By 1939, however, the company employed more than 1,000 people and served more than a quarter-million policyholders.

Other successful black businessmen include the likes of Henry Allen Boyd, the son of a slave with little education, who established numerous businesses in Nashville, Tenn., and supported the entrepreneurial efforts of other blacks. John Whitelaw Lewis established an elegant black hotel, which was designed by a black architect, built by black tradesman, and became renowned as the center of social life for black professionals. George Downing developed a thriving catering business in several resorts in the 1840s and also built the luxurious Sea Girt Hotel in Newport, R.I.

Neither the Plessy vs. Ferguson decision nor the Jim Crow laws that were passed to eliminate black entrepreneurs and professionals from market competition could stem the tide of determined, successful black entrepreneurs.

Between 1867 and 1917, the number of black enterprises increased from 4,000 to 50,000.

Tragically, today at a time when the inspiration of this legacy of enterprise, self-help, and mutual assistance is desperately needed by our youth the history of black entrepreneurship has been silenced.

John Sibley Butler, a sociologist who specializes in documenting enterprise in the black community describes the turn of black academics toward a culture of victimhood: "After slavery, most of the research on black Americans was in a category called 'racial uplift.' This research was designed to show the progress of black Americans in education, institution building and business enterprise. Although there was research on problems associated with black America, it is clear that the racial uplift literature balanced, and indeed outweighed, the literature on the problems. But, around the late 1970s, research on black Americans made a complete shift to the study of failure within a hostile racial society. Like a city covered after an earthquake, most of the success of black America was buried and forgotten."

Documenting racial disparities and discrimination may have been necessary in order to make a case for the protection of our civil rights. But, since the 1960s, this focus on grievances has taken on a life of its own. It has dominated the debate and eclipsed the documentation of black successes. Black spokesmen turned away from the rich legacy of a past that was spiritually and economically vibrant and looked, instead, to legislation and politicians for salvation. Today's statistics regarding the state of our young people provide evidence that solutions lie elsewhere.

In this month that is set aside to celebrate black history, let's turn our attention from the wrongs and racism perpetrated by others and introduce our children to models who have taught, through their lives, that achievement is possible, despite the odds.

Robert L. Woodson is the founder and president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise and author of "The Triumphs of Joseph: How Today's Community Healers Are Reclaiming our Streets and Neighborhoods."

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