Walker has written about Free Frank, her ancestor
who purchased himself, his wife, and several members of his family. Free Frank Mc Worter’s sense of
entrepreneurship, despite the galling unfairness of the
slave system, reminds us of the ways Africa n Americans have succeeded in our capitalist economy, often
despite all odds.
When we celebrate African-American entrepreneurship, people like Reggie Lewis and Cathy Hughes
come to mind. In the 19th century, though, William
Alexander Leidesdorff was the first African American
to be treasurer of San Francisco (1847) and the nation’s first black millionaire. The life of Madame C.J.
Walker, the nation’s first black-woman millionaire,
is often celebrated, but the entrepreneurial genius of
Maggie Lena Walker, the Richmond banker, is rarely
discussed. Sadie Tanner Moselle Alexander was the
first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics on
June 15, 1921. Another African-American Ph.D.
economist, Robert Weaver, was confirmed as the first
black Cabinet secretary on Jan. 15, 1966.
On July 30, 1877, 30 African-American settlers
from Kentucky arrived in Kansas to establish the town
of Nicodemas, the first of hundreds of all-black or
mostly black western towns. In Black History Month,
it is important to both celebrate success and acknowledge scathing setbacks. Economic envy spurred whites
to destroy the thriving black community in Wilmington, N.C., on Nov. 10, 1898. The black newspaper was
burned, dozens of African-American citizens were
murdered, and some of the wealthiest and most successful African Americans and their white allies were
banned from the city. Thomas C. Miller, worth more
than $30,000 in 1898 dollars (the equivalent of more
than half a million of today’s dollars) was one of those
exiled. On June 1, 1921, Black Wall Street, an absolutely thriving African-American community in Tulsa,
Okla., was bombed from the air and burned to the
ground by mobs of envious whites. In just 12 hours,
a vibrant black business district was transformed into
smoldering rubble, with most of the black citizens of
that town fenced into a virtual concentration camp,
their businesses gone, their homes burned or looted.
To this day, there is no accurate count of the number
of lives lost in the evisceration of Black Wall Street.
Should these chapters of African-American history
be forgotten for the sake of harmony? Indeed not!
Instead, acknowledgement of injustice should inform
and inspire all Americans who can celebrate and embrace the resilience of the human spirit and the extent
to which, despite unfairness, African-American people
continue to have faith and fealty for our nation. Even
as we acknowledge the racial disparities in income,
wealth and employment, Black History Month is a
reminder that, despite disparities, African Americans
have been key contributors to the vitality of our nation’s economy.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is the president of Bennett
College for Women and a noted economist, author and