Black Wealth Then and Now

Black Wealth Then and Now
In 1921, the so-called Black Wall Street, the Greenwood central business district of Tulsa, was burned down and more than 300 Black people were killed. Photo courtesy of The Commons

On June 1, 2021, President Joe Biden gave a speech commemorating the 1921 Tulsa (Greenwood) Race Massacre. This incident was chronicled by Scott Ellsworth in his 1982 book, Death in a Promised Land, and in 2001 by Tim Madigan in his book, The Burning: Massacre, Destruction and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921.

The burning refers to the total demolition of Black Wall Street, the Greenwood central business district. Thirty-five square blocks of this district were leveled, and the death count neared 300 Black souls along with 1,000-plus homes looted and destroyed.

The Black wealth accrued in Greenwood was equivalent to around $20 million today. However, it was death by a dream deferred by White terrorism.

The 2001 Tulsa Race Riot Commission chronicled the event by interviewing survivors. Some of their memories:

  • Black souls who died were carted away in open cattle cars. One White resident, Ruth Sigler Avery, testified that as a teenager she saw a load of half-naked Black bodies with a Black boy her age dead but eyes fixed on her.
  • A prominent Black physician, A.C. Jackson, was shot dead while standing in front of his home.
  • The wealthiest Black entrepreneur was John the Baptist Stradford, known as J.B. Stradford, who owned the three-story, brown-brick Stradford hotel, with 54 rooms, business offices and a drugstore. The Stradford was burned to the ground.
  • Another White person, Walter Ferrell, who witnessed the destruction and who lived on the border of Greenwood, testified that he saw two of his Black childhood playmates burn up in their home. Ferrell said, “It was just too terrible to talk about.”

Today, to remember that grisly event, a new history center is being built in Tulsa called Greenwood Rising.

Now, in 2023, there is a new type of Black Wall Street, made up of 35,000 Black millionaires. These Black men and women are located throughout the nation.

And, because of the desegregation of America and the socioeconomic gains via affirmative action, the once-used observation, “There are individual Blacks who are middle class,” became a relic to a real full-blown Black middle class.

The bourgeois Black millionaires and Black entrepreneurs stand on the shoulders of the petit-bourgeois and working-class base of Black families who live in nice neighborhoods and single-family household/homes, working in well-paying nine-to-five jobs, and on Black blue-collar workers with much longer hours of work.

However, it is the Black bourgeoisie who own and independently control their wealth that is the hallmark of power. For some, what makes this class celebrated and admirable is that they have accepted the “noblesse oblige” of paying it forward or giving back to the Black community.

Seventy percent of this class are college educated, and 90% acquired their wealth via entrepreneurship. Eighty-five percent are men and 15% are women.

Oprah Winfrey, as philanthropist, has given $400 million to education and, specifically, 400 annual scholarships to Morehouse College in Atlanta.

In sports, NBA star Malcolm Brogdon’s Starting Five Foundation has built freshwater wells for thousands in East Africa. Jalen Rose and LeBron James have established Black independent secondary schools in Detroit and Akron.

And the late Beatrice International CEO, Reginal Lewis, gave Howard University a $1 million grant.

Yes, the Greenwoods within the broader Black America are rising again.

Nonetheless, the disparities between White households and “impoverished” Black household median income keep widening. One major aspect of this gap in household “wealth” is gender. Most Black households are headed by single women with children, with some research noting it to be as high as 75%.

The question posed many times is, “Where are the Black men and fathers?” Black men are absent due to murder via gang violence, divorce, a high rate of reluctance to marry and support a family when their employment stability is suspect, massive penal incarceration, and medical crises such as hypertension and kidney disease.

One important aspect of Black poverty and households is the variable “social class.” The post–civil rights Black community welcomed the 1965 Fair Housing Act and federal coercive enforcement because the new law’s aim was to give the Black bourgeoisie the right to live in upscale, hitherto “vanilla” suburbs.

Redlining, the practice through which White banks and other lenders racially discriminated by limiting housing loans to low-income inner-city areas called “ghettos” or “the hood,” has diminished. Lenders had city maps in their offices with red lines marking areas of White urbanization versus Black urbanization.

In historical reality, this practice began simultaneously with the federal government and the private sector during the Great Depression, as chronicled by Ira Katznelson in his 2005 book, When Affirmative Action Was White.

President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” for relief, recovery and reform was doled out within the segregated social relations of Whites first and Blacks last or not at all. Black Americans called it the “Raw Deal.” Under the postwar G.I. Bill, Black veterans were denied home loans.

By the 1960s, with the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the federally supported affirmative action hiring of Black college graduates in corporate America, the petit-bourgeois household median income approximated White petit-bourgeois median incomes, but the inequitable gap between White households and Black households per se, not accounting for social class, has remained.

The Brookings Institute data reveal that even Black petit-bourgeois household family income trails comparable White petit-bourgeois household incomes. Therefore, history matters.

Numerous Black towns such as Tulsa’s Greenwood district have never recovered from racist destruction so Black intergenerational wealth has severely lagged that of Whites. Therefore, financial gains transferred via inheritance and intergenerational wealth never accrued for Black families in the Age of Jim Crow segregation and violence. It is like Black families were held back at the starting line and have never caught up.

This strange new post–civil rights world of race and class has not prevented the idea of a homogenous “Black community” without clear demographic hierarchical lines of social class. Clair and Cliff Huxtable, of The Cosby Show, as fictitious as they are, have real counterparts in today’s America.

One can see this class difference play out in the 2011 Hollywood film, Jumping the Broom. The plot addresses the class relations within Black America, with one family living high on the hog in Martha’s Vineyard while the other lives in inner-city Harlem.

A marriage will take place between the son of the Harlem family and the daughter of Black millionaires. At the pre-wedding dinner, the mother of the groom senses that the mother of the bride is a stuffy elitist who proudly proclaims that her colonial American Black ancestors owned slaves.

Yes, there was class hierarchy within the slave community as characterized by Malcolm X in his parable on “The House Slave vs. the Field Slave.”

Within today’s class dilemma in Black America, there are approximately 10 Black billionaires, such as Jay Z, Robert Smith, Oprah Winfrey, Kanye West, David Steward, Michael Jordan and Dr. Dre.

W.E.B. DuBois touched on the class disparities in Black life and culture when, in 1903, he wrote The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois advocated for a “Talented Tenth” who, with a liberal arts education, would provide political leadership that would help the masses of Black folk move from a quasi-freedom to true equality before the law.

Besides Oprah, the most prominent philanthropist has been Robert Smith, who paid off the student-loan debt of an entire graduating class at Morehouse College and donated an additional $35 million to the college itself.

Of interest, Netflix, in 2021, produced a series entitled Gilded Age, in which a real member of the Talented Tenth is featured: T. Thomas Fortune, who was editor of the newspaper, The New York Age. This well-do-to do Black social class was examined, in 1945, by the famous Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier in his book, Black Bourgeoisie.

DuBois also provided a paradigm to explain the salient contradiction by which the Black bourgeoisie and the Black working class live—his “two-ness” reality of being both “an American and a Negro.” It is being Black that reveals the crisis of Black households even for the bourgeoisie.

During the transition from a Jim Crow America to a post–civil rights America, rich entertainers and especially athletes such as Jackie Robinson, Bill Russell, Willie Mays and others had to arm themselves as they established their households in heretofore all-White enclaves. In fact, before Robinson armed himself, racists would break into his home and defecate on his bed while he was on road trips.

Individual Blacks with wealth are important, but the strategies for collectively uplifting Black wealth have varied. One that is practiced every year is “Black Dollar Day,” which has its counterpart in England as “Black Pound Day.” The aim on that designated day is for Black consumers to only patronize Black-owned businesses (including online), which then circulate Black dollars within the Black community.

Buy Black is exemplified in the sports/hip hop company FUBU (For Us by Us). A critical question should be posed regarding this strategy: Do Black businesses acquiring profits set up profit-sharing schemes for their Black workers?

A much earlier and similar strategy was offered up by the Nixon presidency in which it doled out federal funding for what it called “Black capitalism.” Nixon, in his 1969 Executive Order 1148, directed the federal Small Business Administration to give loans to “minority business entrepreneurs.”

This approach was adopted in one form or another by successive presidential administrations, both Democratic and Republican, and even Trump proposed “free enterprise zones” where tax credits would be conveyed to capitalists to invest in “economically distressed areas.”

The dilemma of race, class, age and family life in Black America has many twists, turns and contradictions. The classic study of Black families and their urban realities is a book by Herbert Gutman entitled The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (1977).

Gutman’s examination of Black family households proved that families maintained a Black man and Black woman with children in the same household during slavery and the four decades after the abolition of slavery. However, Gutman found that the destructiveness of racism in free life by 1925 led to the appearance of the classic Black family structure that we still see today of single Black women in households with their children. 


  • Malik Simba

    Dr. Malik Simba is professor emeritus of history and Africana studies at Fresno State and has taught at the University of Minnesota, Binghamton University and Clarion University. His book, Black Marxism and American Constitutionalism: From the Colonial Background through the Ascendancy of Barack Obama and the Dilemma of Black Lives Matter, is used widely. Dr. Simba serves on the board of, the Google of the Africana experience.

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Homer Gee Greene Jr.
Homer Gee Greene Jr.
1 year ago

A really informative essay by Dr. Simba.

Homer Gee Greene Jr.
Homer Gee Greene Jr.
1 year ago

A really informative essay. Nice work.

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