Watchmen Series Reveals 'Black Wall Street', But Ignores Biblical Roots

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Posted: Dec 02, 2019 10:41 AM
Watchmen Series Reveals 'Black Wall Street', But Ignores Biblical Roots

Source: AP Photo/DC Entertainment

The HBO’s Watchman series begins season one, episode one briefly telling the story of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Black Wall Street racial riot/massacre in June 1921 to create an alternative reality of Tulsa in 2019. 

After our Civil War ended, we worked to break off our national shackles of slavery and these efforts let the black entrepreneurial cat out of the bag. In 1881, Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) became the first leader of the Tuskegee Institute and he bootstrapped their continued building. He attracted the best and brightest black students because he learned from a former employer, Mrs. Ruffner, about strict standards (while other young black men quit within weeks, “too strict,” he listened and learned).[1] But Washington also enlisted students in the construction of their buildings, from classrooms to dormitories, as the Institute grew. 

Washington’s curriculum of the students’ education (George Washington Carver was one of their professors) coupled with self-reliant trade work to maintain a large farm to be essentially self-supporting, rearing animals and cultivating needed produce were fundamental to his teaching life skills. Washington’s entrepreneurial charge and charter “soothed his listeners’ concerns about ‘uppity’ blacks by claiming that his race would content itself with living ‘by the productions of our hands.’” when he delivered his famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech.

Cast it down in agriculture, mechanics, in commerce, in domestic service, and in the professions. And in this connection it is well to bear in mind that whatever other sins the South may be called to bear, when it comes to business, pure and simple, it is in the South that the Negro is given a man’s chance in the commercial world, and in nothing is this Exposition more eloquent than in emphasizing this chance. Our greatest danger is that in the great leap from slavery to freedom we may overlook the fact that the masses of us are to live by the productions of our hands, and fail to keep in mind that we shall prosper in proportion as we learn to dignify and glorify common labour, and put brains and skill into the common occupations of life; shall prosper in proportion as we learn to draw the line between the superficial and the substantial, the ornamental gewgaws of life and the useful. No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities.

The Tuskegee Institute’s entrepreneurial principles spread rapidly and ended up in Durham, North Carolina.

[F]rom an aggressive Negro business movement born out of the deteriorating race relations of the New South, which for many black leaders stimulated a flight from politics and protest into religion, education, and business. Indeed, apart from Tuskegee Institute itself, the North Carolina Mutual [Life Insurance Company] stands as the most conspicuous institutional legacy of the ideas of racial self-help and economic solidarity—ascendant elements in Afro-American thought exalted by Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century when the Company was founded. […] “Learn to imitate the Jews,” Booker T. Washington commanded again and again.[2]

Washington enlisted other blacks to join him by starting the The National Negro Business League (NNBL) in 1900. It was designed to promote the commercial and economic prosperity of the African American community and predated the United States Chamber of Commerce by 12 years. By about 1915, the NNBL had hundreds of chapters in 34 states. 

The National Negro Business League operated through a network of state and local “Negro business leagues,” located mainly in the South, and through affiliated professional and trade organizations. Meetings provided a forum in which African American small businessmen made contacts and shared stories of their struggles and successes. […] The league had substantial connections with the world of white business and business philanthropy. Booker T. Washington enjoyed easy and cordial contacts with powerful members of the white business elite, including John Wanamaker and Andrew Carnegie. Julius Rosenwald, head of the Sears, Roebuck mail-order and chain-store company, was a friend of Washington and sat on the Tuskegee Institute Board of Trustees. (See NNBL under the Library of Congress Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929Jewish businessman Julius Rosenwald helped fund building over 5,000 schools for blacks)

Walter B. Weare writes about the fifteenth annual NNLB meeting in Oklahoma in 1914 and compares the attitudinal differences of the Indians who became dependent on the government versus the blacks who started to become mentally unshackled from the slavery of the South.

A National Negro Business League convention in Oklahoma issued a striking description of the local Indians. The Negro editor reported the Indian as “…half nude and gaily painted…remaining uncivilized…ignorant, idle, and dependent on the United States Government…Unlike the Negro [he continued], they have no banking institutions; neglecting their opportunity, they are fast losing their birth right, while on the other hand NEGRO INDUSTRY, THRIFT, AND SELF INITIATIVE have given to our race 10,000 mercantile enterprises, 63 banking institutions, 400 drugstores, 20 million acres of land, and material wealth exceeding $700,000,000.”[3]

Washington’s source of his business and economic acumen was his faith and the Bible. 

The Negro who does the shooting is uneducated and without Christian training […] Of all the graduates from Tuskegee Institute only one had been since sentenced to the penitentiary […] So the work today is to make religion the vital part of the Negro’s life. But this is a stupendous task, as there is a nation of Negros… He added: “Just remember that the Negro came out of Africa a few centuries ago…chains upon his ankles and wrists. He came out of that…with a hammer and a saw in his hands and a Bible in his hands. No man can read the Bible and be lazy. Christianity increases a man’s…capacity for labor. The Negro doesn’t run from the Bible, either. […]” Harvard President Charles W. Eliot spoke at Tuskegee’s 25th anniversary in 1906, stating: “By 1905, Tuskegee produced more self-made millionaires than Harvard, Yale and Princeton combined.” Booker T. Washington stated: “Anyone can seek a job, but it requires a person of rare ability to create a job…”[4]

Entrepreneurs create jobs with business. By the time of Washington’s death in 1915, Tuskegee Institute had grown to 2,000 students and a faculty of 200 teaching 38 trades. This sets the stage for the two Black Wall Streets, one in Durham, North Carolina and one in Tulsa, Oklahoma, with both taking differing paths. The Tulsa Black Wall street began with the discovery of “Texas Tea,” oil, in Oklahoma, attracting black manual labor.

The treaties between the United States and the Native American tribes “required their Native Americans to free their slaves and allot them land. African-Americans pooled their resources and allotted lands became communities. These communities opened their arms to freed slaves from all across the country.”[5] 

The culture of the day facing African-Americans of blatant economic barriers of prejudice, discrimination, and racial politics dictated an “economic detour.” This detour is an alternative path a particular group takes when something impedes or prevents its full and equal access to economic markets. “While the ‘economic detour’ protected African-American entrepreneurs and professionals from competition from whites, it often hampered their advancement.”[6]

By 1921, “Tulsa’s African-American population numbered almost 11,000 with one hospital, two newspapers, two theaters, a public library, twenty three churches, and three fraternal lodges.”[7] Yet a more sinister mob of people numbering 2,500 began heating up and stirring this racial pot.

[1] See Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, pg. 43-44  at archive.org/ 

[2] See Black Business in the New South by Walter B. Weare, pg viii, xiii

[3] See Black Business in the New South by Walter B. Weare, pg 25

[5] See Black Wall Street by Hannibal B. Johnson, pg 5.

[6] See Black Wall Street by Hannibal B. Johnson, pg 18-19

[7] See Black Wall Street by Hannibal B. Johnson, pg 25