Black folk have really gone through it this past year. Not only have we witnessed people who look like us being gunned down in their sleep, on the street or on their daily jog, but we’re also disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, the deadly virus that has swept the globe. Being Black in America, and the rest of the world, is pretty lit —but it is also overwhelming. For over 400 years, we’ve witnessed abuse, trauma, racial inequality and injustice inflicted upon Black communities all over the world.
We’re taking a deep dive into some of the most resilient Black communities throughout history. And while knowing our history is important, it’s also a time to reflect, look beyond our past and present, and celebrate our Black Future – a 365 day observance, where Black people visualise the kind of world we need and want.
And there’s a lot we can learn from our history. For nearly 250 years, slavery was one of the dominant forces for Black communities around the world. Political clout and economic fortune were dependent on the labour of slaves. Despite our deeply painful past, we’ve proven time and time again that we can pick ourselves back up, support our communities, and rebuild.
We’re highlighting some of the most prosperous Black communities throughout history, from the wealthy Black enclave in Tulsa, Oklahoma— otherwise known as Black Wall Street — to the diverse Caribbean communities in Bristol, UK, and what they look like in 2021. Based on historic events, how have these spaces changed? How far have we come from the effects of racism, misogyny and homophobia and how far do we still have to go? It’s time to celebrate Black people from the past, present and future.
Black Wall Street, Tulsa, Oklahoma, United States
Tulsa, OK’s Greenwood District, was known as Black Wall Street in 1921. It was one of the most prosperous Black communities in the United States, and that was intentional. In 1906, O.W. Gurley, a wealthy Black man from Arkansas, moved to Tulsa and purchased over 40 acres of land that he only sold to other Black people. As a result, Tulsa provided an opportunity for those migrating from the “harsh oppression of Mississippi.”
Word began to spread and other Black entrepreneurs followed suit. J.B. Stradford, born into slavery in Kentucky, later becoming a lawyer and activist, moved to Greenwood in 1898. He built a 55-room luxury hotel bearing his name, the largest Black-owned hotel in the country. A.J. Smitherson, a publisher whose family moved to Indian Territory in the 1890s, founded the Tulsa Star, a Black newspaper headquartered in Greenwood that became instrumental in informing Black Americans about their legal rights.
On Greenwood Avenue, there were luxury shops, restaurants, grocery stores, hotels, jewellery and clothing stores, movie theatres, barbershops and salons, a library, pool halls, nightclubs and offices for doctors, lawyers and dentists. Greenwood also had its own school system, post office, a savings and loan bank, hospital, and bus and taxi service.
However, it wasn’t long before the affluent African-Americans attracted the attention of local white residents, who resented the lifestyle of people they deemed inferior. With the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, Black people in Greenwood feared racial violence and the removal of their voting rights.
Tensions exploded on 31st May 1921, when the Tulsa Tribune reported that a Black man, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, attempted to rape a white woman, 17-year-old Sarah Page. White people in the area refused to wait for the investigation to play out, which sparked two days of racial violence. Thirty-five city blocks were burned to the ground, 300 people died and 800 were injured.
Despite receiving the assistance of the NAACP, other Black townships in Oklahoma and donations from Black churches and the resilient Black community, Black Wall Street never recovered. Businesses like the Tulsa Star newspaper permanently shuttered.
The Greenwood District still exists today, but the local businesses resemble little of its past.
Nearly a century after the Tulsa Race Massacre, Greenwood boasts just 20 businesses owned and operated by Black people. The A.M.E church is also the only original establishment that is still Black-owned, as white businesses have steadily encroached on the historically Black spaces. Greenwood District’s neighbour to the west, the Tulsa Arts District (formerly known as Brady Arts District) is a hub of coffee shops, boutiques, a bodega and even a cycling exercise studio. These are the markers of gentrification that has infringed upon the Greenwood District over the years and slowly robbed the area of its once proud Black history.
Of course, this has also stirred resentment in the community, as Black residents have benefited very little from this gentrification. One of the most successful businesses in the area today — is the $39.2 million £35m) ballpark that protrudes well into Greenwood. But nine years after the first pitch was thrown at the new home of the Tulsa Drillers, Black residents have yet to reap their promised benefits from 70 games days and nights a year.
“The northeast corner of the IDL cuts through the heart of historic Greenwood. It looms as a reminder that this neighbourhood has experienced great trauma, and not only in 1921,” Kuma Roberts, executive director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Tulsa Regional Chamber, told Associated Press. “The most prosperous African-American community in our nation was once located on (Greenwood Avenue). We should celebrate that. We should champion that. And we should see to it that the world knows Greenwood District as America’s Black Wall Street.”
Harlem Renaissance, Harlem, New York, United States
The Harlem Renaissance was the development of the Harlem neighbourhood in New York and was known as a Black cultural mecca in the early 20th century. Lasting roughly from the 1910s through to the mid-1930s, the period is considered a golden age in African-American culture, manifesting in literature, music, stage performance and art.
Outside factors also led to a population boom: Between 1910 and 1920, African-American populations migrated in large numbers from the south to the north, with prominent figures like W.E.B Du Bois leading what became known as the Great Migration. By 1920, some 300,000 African-Americans from the south had moved north, and Harlem was one of the most popular destinations.
Jazz boomed out of Harlem in the 1920s, often played at speakeasies offering illegal liquor. Some of the most celebrated names in American music regularly performed in Harlem, such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith, Fats Waller and Cab Calloway. Poetry also flourished. However, the end of Harlem’s create boom began with the stock market crash of 1929 and The Great Depression. It wavered until Prohibition ended in 1933, which meant white patrons no longer sought out the illegal alcohol in uptown clubs. By 1935, many pivotal Harlem residents had moved on to seek work and due to the famous Harlem Race Riot that same year, the historic neighbourhood was replaced by the continuous flow of refugees from the south.
Visiting Harlem today, it is clear to see that while much of the community remains the same, there is also an increasing number of white middle classes put down roots, indicating a change in the neighbourhood demographic. Rents are rising, historic buildings are coming down. The Renaissance, where Duke Ellington performed, and the Childs Memorial Temple Church of God in Christ, where Malcolm X’s funeral was held, have all been demolished. Nightlife fixtures like Smalls’ Paradise and Lenox Lounge are gone.
There are new building projects, Whole Foods stores and Starbucks logos line Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard. Such developments are not designed to improve the district for current residents, instead pandering to a new generation of wealthy white New Yorkers. As Horace Carter, the founder of the Emanuel Pietersen Historical Society told New York Times journalist Michael Henry Adams in his article for the Sunday Review, “I tell you, they have a plan. Harlem is too well-placed. The white man is ready to take it all back.”
5nd Street West Philadelphia, United States
About 60 years ago, there was nothing more flourishing than “the Strip” on 52nd Street, home to the liveliest jazz scene, the most iconic-era urban shopping and eventually Philly’s best soul food. There were jazz clubs, movie theatres and home to wedded economic prosperity. However, in the decades since the industrialisation of cities, disinvestment, and misguided efforts to compete with suburban shopping malls, the community declined, and hit the lowest point in the 200s.
A prolonged and deeply disruptive repair project on the El caused some businesses to fold. Crime and the drug trade became rampant. Long-term residents began to move out of the area while many of the new residents were of low-income status and often renters. 52nd Street obtained a reputation for not being safe. The Daily Nails in 2007 called 52nd and Market Streets the “city’s deadliest corner”.
While property values have shot up, unemployment declined and the corridor is again hosting cultural events, it still remains a predominantly Black neighbourhood where half of the businesses along 52nd Street are Black-owned. But on 31st May 2020, everything changed. Protests erupted over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and the Black mecca suffered severe damage About 15% of the 200 businesses on 52nd Street between Arch and Pine Streets, along some side streets, suffered severe damage from looting and vandalism. Big chains, such as Foot Locker and McDonalds, got hit, but the majority of the damage was done to small businesses.
After a year of looting, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, business owners on 52nd Street look to recover in 2021. Wells Fargo donated $2.5m (£2m) from Wells Fargo to small businesses struggling as a result of the pandemic, while the Enterprise Center, a non-profit that works with businesses on the corridor, has issued about $100,000 (£60,000) in grants and helped connect 47 businesses to more than $685,000 (£500,000) in relief funding for both the pandemic and the May and October unrests.
Bristol, United Kingdom
You may have read the headlines last year that the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was thrown into Bristol’s harbour by anti-racism protesters during a Black Lives Matter demonstration, but the British city’s connection to the Black community runs much deeper.
Bristol’s Black History is centuries old and yet many of its stories are lost, hidden, or shrouded in myth.The earliest records of Black people in Bristol show a ‘blacke moore’ gardener living and working in the city in the 1560s. Bristol wrote itself indelibly into African history by becoming one of the major players in the TransAtlantic Slave Trade. At least half a million Africans were taken into enslavement on Bristol ships alone. The city swelled on the glut of dirty money that flooded the area, a legacy we can still recognise today in some of Bristol’s grander architecture and often fraught relationship with race.
In an ongoing struggle for acceptance and equality, Bristol’s Black citizens played an important role in changing British laws forever. The Bristol Bus Boycott in 1963 started as a protest against the company’s racist recruitment policies and ended up influencing the UK’s first Race Relations Act which sought to outlaw such discrimination. Still rife with inequality, Black Brits continued to make national headlines in the 1980s with the St Pauls ‘riots’.
Since the 1990s, Bristol’s Black populations have hugely diversified with thousands of Somalis arriving as refugees and economic migrants, as well as an increasing number of migrants from across Africa, including Eritrea and Sudan. Somali is now the third most commonly spoken language in Bristol and the city enjoys its own annual Somali festival.
Goutte d’Or, Paris, France “Little Africa”
Once outside the walls of inner Paris, The Goutte d’Or was incorporated into the city in the 1860s and populated in large part by successive waves of immigrants, mainly from French-speaking Africa AKA ‘Francophone’ countries, who continue being regarded as outsiders. From the 1920s, the area witnessed a substantial influx of people moving there from Algeria. In 1948 the area had 5,720 North Africans and by 1952 had between 5,500-6,400 residents, and had perceived to have become North African in the post-World War II period. As of circa 1995, the favoured locations for sub-Saharan African settlement in the city of Paris included the 18th, 19th and 20th arrondissements. La Gouette d’Or, in particular, has had a large number of North African and Sub-Saharan residents.
Paris has the largest population of Black people in Europe. France’s long colonial presence in West and North Africa and its unwillingness to break the bond means a large and vibrant African-descended population claims the country as its own. The city’s African roots can be seen in the diversity of Paris’ people, its museums, fashion, art, galleries, music, and more.
The 18th arrondissement, which is also known as Little Africa, continues to be a melting pot of culture thanks to an explosion of immigrants settling there from Cameroon, Senegal and Mali. While it’s not stated explicitly, Little Africa is where people of African descent go to find community, despite many efforts by the French government to gentrify the area through local measures.Nonetheless, the neighbourhood still retains its image as an “African district” despite a growing disconnect between rapid gentrification and housing stock.
The area is now home to numerous bars and restaurants, craftspeople (tailors) and various service activities such as hairdressers. A large, colourful graffiti work in the Goutte d’Or neighbourhood reads “Police everywhere, justice nowhere” — a popular slogan at the recent anti-racism rallies and a sign that tensions remain high.
Chateau Rouge, or Quartier African, a metro stop in the 18th arrondissement, has been known for the specificity of the products that are sold there from France, North Africa, China, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
While people have been talking about gentrification there for the last decade, La Goutte d’Or has remained the same, as one of the last authentically Black neighbourhoods left.
Africville, Nova Scotia, Canada
Africville was an African-Canadian village located just north of Halifax and founded in the mid-18th century. The City of Halifax demolished the once-prosperous seaside community in the 1960s in what many said was an act of racism. For many people, Africville represents the oppression faced by Black Canadians, and the efforts to right historical wrongs.
Halifax was founded in 1749, when enslaved African people dug out dirt roads and built much of the city. It is likely that several Black families lived in the area, earning it the nickname “African Village”. There were a mix of formerly enslaved people, Maroons, and Black refugees from the War of 1812. Many of these refugees were themselves once enslaved in the Chesapeake area of the United States.
In 1848, William Arnold and William Brown, both Black settlers, bought land in Africville. Other families followed and in 1849, Seaview African United Baptist Church was opened and quickly became “the beating heart of Africville”. It held the main civil events, including weddings, funerals and baptisms. Black Nova Scotians, as well as white Nova Scotians, would line the banks of the Bedford Basin to watch the singing procession leave the church to baptise adults in the basin’s waters. After much petitioning by Afrivillians, a school opened in 1883.
Throughout the 1930s, residents petitioned the city to provide running water, sewage disposal, paved roads, garbage removal, electricity, street lights, police services, and a cemetery. Their requests were largely denied. In the 1950s, Halifax built an open-pit garbage dump in Africville.
Despite difficult living conditions and Africville’s growing reputation as a “slum” in the 20th century, residents generally maintained a deep pride in their community. It was seen as a rural idyll apart from Halifax. Many cited the people and the seaside location, with one well-travelled resident calling it “one of the most beautiful spots I’ve been in.”
Instead of fixing things, Halifax city officials decided to raze Africville. By 1967, after several years of study and talk, the city of Halifax planned to relocate the 400 citizens of Africville, demolish their houses and all community buildings. The relocation of Africville meant the end of a vibrant community coupled with feelings of loss, grief and outrage. The Seaview Baptist Church was the heart of Africville; it was the town hall, the business centre, and the place where Bible classes were held and youth clubs met. In February 2010, the Halifax council along with the government of Canada issued an official apology for the destruction of Africville and pledged $250,000 to rebuild the church. The new Seaview African United Baptist Church opened in September 2011.
The place where Africville stood is now a park. Every summer, Black people who lived in Africville along with their descendents hold a reunion there. Many camp on the site of their former homes. Today, the Africville Museum looks across the land where the residents of Africville lived, worked, and raised their families.