This month we celebrate National Black Business Month, which is a time organizations, businesses, individuals, and communities recognize Black businesses across the country. However, as we celebrate this very vital and important month, we must also reflect on our country’s history of violence, hate, and deep seeded racism. Our country was not always in a time when we celebrated diversity in business.
An example of a historical event exemplifies our nation’s history of racism intersecting with business is Tulsa’s most significant event: the Tulsa Massacre. Soon after World War 1 ended, the Greenwood neighborhood in Tulsa became an affluent African American Neighborhood with a thriving business district, coming to be known as “Black Wall Street.” But, in the summer of 1921, this all took a turn for the worst.
According to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum:
“On the morning of May 30, 1921, a young Black man named Dick Rowland was riding in the elevator in the Drexel Building at Third and Main with a white woman named Sarah Page. The details of what followed vary from person to person. Accounts of an incident circulated among the city’s white community during the day and became more exaggerated with each telling.
Tulsa police arrested Rowland the following day and began an investigation. An inflammatory report in the May 31 edition of the Tulsa Tribune spurred a confrontation between black and white armed mobs around the courthouse where the sheriff and his men had barricaded the top floor to protect Rowland. Shots were fired and the outnumbered African Americans began retreating to the Greenwood District.
In the early morning hours of June 1, 1921, Greenwood was looted and burned by white rioters. Governor Robertson declared martial law, and National Guard troops arrived in Tulsa. Guardsmen assisted firemen in putting out fires, took African Americans out of the hands of vigilantes and imprisoned all Black Tulsans not already interned. Over 6,000 people were held at the Convention Hall and the Fairgrounds, some for as long as eight days.
Twenty-four hours after the violence erupted, it ceased. In the wake of the violence, 35 city blocks lay in charred ruins, more than 800 people were treated for injuries and contemporary reports of deaths began at 36. Historians now believe as many as 300 people may have died.
In order to understand the Tulsa Race Massacre it is important to understand the complexities of the times. Dick Rowland, Sarah Page and an unknown gunman were the sparks that ignited a long smoldering fire. Jim Crow, jealousy, white supremacy, and land lust, all played roles in leading up to the destruction and loss of life on May 31 and June 1, 1921.”[i]
Prior to the events of that fateful two days, Greenwood was a space where African American people could thrive; they had businesses, homes, and a thriving economy. However, systemic racism took that all away and left the area decimated with over 800 hundred wounded and hundreds dead. The white and privileged class did not believe that this community deserved to exist and that their “American Dream” did not belong to people of color. A vibrant community was gone and the prospering businesses and people had to start over.
When we celebrate a time of observance, such as National Black Business Month, we must remember the legacy of events such as the one in Tulsa. Reflection on the past is needed to make sure we don’t let what happened transpire again. Perhaps this is what Frederick E. Jordan, an engineering entrepreneur, who teamed up with John William Templeton, president and executive editor of eAccess Corp. (a scholarly publishing company) had in mind when, in 2004, they began this celebration. Jordan wanted to elevate other Black business reflecting on the challenges he faced as a new business owner.[ii]
Since 1921, things have changed for African American business owners. Although things have not been easy, we are seeing changes. “According to a 2021 census on minority-owned businesses, Black and African American business owners own approximately 124,551 businesses in the U.S.”[iii] So while there has been growth, as can be seen by the census numbers, it is not to say the growth was achieved without any sort of inequities. “While there’s been growth in Black entrepreneurs and businesses over the years, these business owners still face disproportionate inequalities that can hinder their abilities to gain financial support, receive equal wages, and find employment within their local communities.”[iv] Covid-19 has also posed an incredible problem to Black owned businesses. “Between February and April of 2020, Black business ownership dropped more than 40% due to lack of access to financial relief and funding during the COVID-19 pandemic.” Yet, this isn’t the only reason for struggles by Black businesses. Ultimately, systemic inequalities lie at the forefront and have done so for decades, if not centuries.
History plays a vital role in where Black owned businesses and entrepreneurs are today. The perpetuated systemic racism that is still alive and well today make income disparities vast, and in turn make living situations just as disproportionate.
During this month we should look to support Black businesses. Here are ways to help[v]:
#1 Shop local
Many small businesses should buy office supplies or staff lunches or other internal items. Rather than putting dollars toward big-box corporate stores, a small business owner could treat staff to lunch from a Black-owned restaurant each week. Or find needed office supplies from a Black vendor.
#2 Use Black directories
The internet is full of all kinds of resources for finding Black-owned businesses, and some make it as easy as using an old school phone book. Turn to resources like WeBuyBlack and Black Business Green Book to find Black-owned business options for all your needs.
#3 Follow the hashtags
With the best intentions, social media can be an incredible resource. Use hashtags like #NationalBlackBusinessMonth, #ShopBlackOwned, #Blackmakers, #Blackowned, #SupportBlackBusiness to find businesses to support.
#4 Partner with a neighbor
Small business owners are in a prime position to help elevate a neighboring Black business by partnering with them on a project or special offer.
#5 Hold vendors accountable
Being an ally often means having someone’s back. In the case of supporting Black businesses, small businesses need to hold others accountable who aren’t being inclusive, whether that’s local organizations, like the Chamber of Commerce, or civic groups.
#6 Make space
So much of business is about getting good attention and PR. When a reporter calls a business for a quote, a small business owner could suggest the names of a Black-owned business instead and pass the mic. You can also help Black-owned businesses by sharing positive reviews and recommendations to local communities or your network of friends and professionals.
[i] Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/
[ii] Tulsa Historical Society and Museum, https://www.tulsahistory.org/exhibit/1921-tulsa-race-massacre/