Untold Stories of Black Success

In the first piece on The Ghetto Activist, I found it important to highlight the Red Summer of 1919, mainly because a lot of folks don’t know the often violent struggles black people had (and still have) to overcome here in America. Since we’ve taken some time to discuss some of that forgotten darkness in our past, I think it’s appropriate to highlight some of the success black people, as a community, we’re able to achieve in America in the face of terrorism, oppression, and degradation.

It’s honestly not surprising to me that we’re never really taught the successes of Black people as a community here in America. Notice I said the Black community and not just Black people. I’m sure a good grip of folks can name some successful black people in America’s history. For instances, we all know about George Washington Carver, Thurgood Marshall, and Maya Angelou, as well as, the successes they achieved in their lifetime. But we rarely talk about the Black community as a whole. Well, I should be clear, we never talk about the successes of the Black community as a whole. Mainly, whenever folks talk about the Black community or, “inner cities,” they tend to focus on negative aspects of the community that support whatever preconceived narratives they already have. You know, shit, like “Black on Black crime,” drug abuse, rap music, and gang culture, are usually the topics of discussion when folks want to talk about the Black community, especially the history of the Black community.

So, in this piece, I want to talk about the untold stories of Black success in the Black community, mainly, because Black people need to hear these stories. These stories aren’t just feel-good pieces, but road maps we can use to rebuild our communities so that we, as a community, can reach our full potential. Buckle up for another ride down American History lane bruh.

Seneca Village, N.Y 1825

Map of Seneca Village
Map of Seneca Village

Seneca Village was founded in 1825 when Epiphany Davis and Andrew Williams became the first African-Americans to buy land in the area. as trustees of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, they purchased eight plots of land close by, and by 1829, nine homes had been built. The dwellings ranged from one-room houses to three-story houses made of wood and brick. The town also featured three churches and a schoolhouse. By the 1850s, about two-thirds of the village’s residents were of African descent, with most of the others being Irish-Americans. According to the Central Park Conservancy, an 1855 census showed 250 residents living in Seneca Village, with 70 homes built. After a history of just 32 years, the end of the town came when the New York State legislature used eminent domain to seize the occupied land and build what is now Central Park.

North Brentwood, Maryland 1924

Early settlers of North Brentwood, Maryland
Early settlers of North Brentwood, Maryland

Established in 1924, North Brentwood, formally known as A Town of Firsts, was Prince George’s County’s first African-American municipality. It was developed from farmland owned by Wallace A. Bartlett, a white commander of the 19th infantry of the U.S. Colored Troops in Brazos and Brownsville, Texas during the Civil War. He created the Holladay Land and Improvement Division in 1887 and sold pieces of land in the floodplains to his fellow soldiers, formerly enslaved Africans, and Black families. Notice these black folks were sold, not given, floodplains… Those same black folks banded together, and in no time, North Brentwood became a politically and economically sufficient town! North Brentwood had its own government, businesses, and even its own religious institutions. Word of black success in North Brentwood spread rapidly throughout the states, and in 6 quick years, it was home to 800 people, according to the North Brentwood Directory. The city was occasionally flooded after heavy rains (granted the lands were originally floodplains, to begin with), but a levee was finally built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1950s. Surprise, surprise, North Brentwood still exists today with a population of 517, according to a 2010 census.

Weeksville, New York 1838

Hunterfly Road houses in Weeksville New York
Hunterfly Road houses in Weeksville New York

Weeksville, New York is probably one of the craziest stories I ever heard about. For starters, Weeksville, formally known as “The Town of Refuge,” was established in 1838 by a Black freedman named James Weeks after he purchased a large amount of land from Henry C. Thompson, another free Black man. I can end this story right there bruh. The town, located in what is now the Bedford-Stuyvesant region of Brooklyn, New York, became the second-largest community for free Blacks in the pre-Civil War era. It also became a safe haven for Blacks fleeing slavery in the South and a refuge for northern Blacks trying to get away from racial oppression and violence in other parts of the country. Weeksville was known for employing Black professionals and allowed them to hone their skills and build clientele. Just like many successful communities, Weeksville had schools, churches, a home for the elderly, and even an orphanage were set up in the town. It even had its own newspaper called The Freedman’s Torchlight, which was one of the nation’s first African-American newspapers, according to BlackPast.org.

By 1900, Weeksville was home to more than 500 families made up of doctors, teachers, preachers, and other professionals. Unfortunately, the community was largely engulfed by the rapid growth of Brooklyn in the 1930s, and the great history of Weeksville was damn near forgotten. Plans were made to preserve the last of the 19th-century cottages, known as the Hunterfly Road Houses, which still stand today. Lucky for us, Weeksville was declared a landmark in 1971.

Africatown, Alabama 1865

Map of Africatown, Alabama
Map of Africatown, Alabama

I know I said the Weeksville story was a crazy one, but honestly, these last two are just as, crazy! Before we get started, yes, this is a real place in America, and the history behind it is one that is lost even among folks who grow up down the street from it. To understand how Africatown came to be, one must go back, way back in America’s dark history. In January 1807, with a self-sustaining population of over four million slaves in the South, some Southern congressmen joined with the North in voting to abolish the African slave trade, an act that became effective January 1, 1808. 

Knowing American history in regards to laws and race relations the passage of this law in 1808 didn’t mean shit. Modern records show that the last known group of people brought here to be slaves came in 1860 from modern-day Benin. The slave trade had been illegal by then for half a century, but a Mobile businessman reportedly sponsored a voyage to Africa on a bet that he couldn’t pull it off without being caught. When the Africans were freed, just five years later, they still spoke minimal English and were far less acclimated to American society than native-born slaves. According to folklore, this is where the African slave taught the American slave how to live. The Africans hadn’t been slaves for long, and they knew more about being free than being slaves. Most were between the ages of 15 and 30. At first, they were bent on returning to Africa, but their former owners refused to help, so many couldn’t pinpoint their villages on the map, and no one knew how to arrange the voyage.

So they decided to take refuge in this area north of town, which was marshy at the time, separated from the Mobile city limits by a swamp. They established an independent society — “the first continuously controlled by blacks, the only one run by Africans,” as the scholar Sylviane Diouf puts it in her 2007 book Dreams of Africa in Alabama. They shared their belongings, built one another’s homes, and governed according to tribal law. Eventually, they settled into jobs, some of them working at lumber mills owned by Timothy and James Meaher, the brothers who formerly enslaved them. They saved up enough to buy land — some of it, again, from the Meahers — and apportioned it among themselves. They decided to “makee de Affica where dey fetch us,” as Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor slave, later put it. African-Americans from other parts of the South heard about the settlement and moved there to join.

Unfortunately, the Meaher family still owned most of the property between the village and the waterfront, and the Africans had no voice in how it would be used. The first factory, International Paper, set up shop in 1929. More followed, and by the 1970s they encircled the neighborhood. At first, the residents didn’t necessarily mind, because the plants brought thousands of jobs. “They said, as long as you live in the community, we’ll hire you,” Womack, a life-long resident of Africatown, said. “As long as you can walk and breathe.” For a while, the neighborhood thrived. The Africatown Elks Lodge was packed at the end of every shift. There were grocery stores, barbershops, a motel, and a movie theater, all within walking distance. Even then, there were signs something was wrong. Not only was International Paper’s mill one of the largest in the country, but the company also had its chemical refinery next door. Some days a putrid smell filled the neighborhood. Charlie Walker, a 62-year-old resident once told a reporter that, “Like we standing out here now, you couldn’t stand out here.” Other days, residents were reported saying, ash would rain down from the sky on certain days. They learned not to hang their clothes out to dry, and they noticed new cars would rust within a few years. Their roofs needed repairs all the time. Of course, living in a town surrounded by deadly chemicals caused most Africatown residents to either move out of town or die from cancer-related illnesses.

Greenwood, Oklahoma 1890

Greenwood, Tulsa
Greenwood, Tulsa 1920 – 1921

Before the place called Greenwood existed, the black people in Oklahoma dreamed big. I’m talking about, BIG, big. They first arrived with Native Americans on the Trail of Tears in the mid-19th century, both as slaves and as freedmen. Thanks to treaties negotiated between the United States and Native tribes after the Civil War, many black people who had been granted citizenship in those tribes were eventually granted large parcels of land, according to Hannibal Johnson’s book Black Wall Street: From Riot to Renaissance in Tulsa’s Historic Greenwood District. By pooling their resources and welcoming blacks from the Southeast seeking a better life, they were able to form dozens of all-black towns in the region. In 1890, Edwin P. McCabe, a politician who founded the all-black town of Langston, met with President Benjamin Harrison to pitch the idea of turning the Oklahoma Territory into an all-black state. Crazy right? Oklahoma white af bruh, but had it not been for extreme racial terrorism, Oklahoma could’ve been America’s Wakanda…

Tulsa became Oklahoma’s most vital boom town when petroleum (oil) was discovered there in 1901. The oil rush created instant wealth for many whites, but also for some of those landowning blacks with ties to the Native tribes. And the city’s new found status attracted entrepreneurs of all races. Segregation forced blacks into the northern part of Tulsa. When the district’s first grocery store opened in 1905 at the corner of Greenwood and Archer Street — the same corner where Mshairi recited his poem — Black Wall Street was born. “A better moniker for what was going on in Tulsa than Black Wall Street would have been Black Main Street,” says Johnson, a Tulsa historian and author of several books about Greenwood. “What we’re talking about really are sole-proprietorship mom-and-pop businesses. Things like pharmacies, dry cleaners, haberdasheries, barber shops, beauty shops, movie theaters, pool halls. Professional services like doctors, lawyers, dentists. Just the kinds of small businesses that make a place vibrant and engaging for folks.”

The Tulsa World Paper
The Tulsa World Paper

By 1921, Greenwood had a high school that taught Latin, chemistry, and physics; a three-story hotel with a chandelier living room; and a silent movie theater accompanied by a live pianist. There were 23 churches, two newspapers, and a public library serving about 11,000 black residents. The district’s most successful entrepreneurs reinvested in the community, building parks, and additional housing. Unfortunately, 1921 had more in store for America’s “Black Wall Street” than black success. One night in June 1921, thousands of white Tulsa residents (As many as 5,000 armed whites, hundreds of them deputized by the police) invaded Greenwood and launched a night of terror that would leave more than 1,200 of Greenwood’s homes and businesses destroyed, hundreds of black residents dead, and a thriving community burned to damn ground. How could this have happened? What could’ve caused such a violent act of racial terrorism that local authorities even participated? Of course, it all started with a white woman accusing a black man of violence. I said “of course,” because this is a common theme in American history. Racial terrorism is oftentimes linked to sexualized fear. The fear of black men raping white women has been at the root of thousands upon thousands of unjust murders here in America. The Tulsa Race Riot is no different. Shit, all hit the fan when a Black man named Dick Rowland rode in the elevator of the Drexel Building with a woman named Sarah Page. Exaggerated accounts of what happened traveled from person to person, eventually making its way to the white community. Rowland was then arrested and questioned. On June 21, 1921, Black Tulsa was looted and burned by whites, according to the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum. Thirty-five city blocks were destroyed and 300 people lost their lives that day. I have to say that one more time. 300 innocent people lost their lives because of white fear…

Greenwood Damaged (The Aftermath)
Remains of Greenwood after the bombing of 1921

According to a few eye-witness accounts, the scope of the attack was equal to warfare: homeowners shot dead in their front yards, planes dropping turpentine bombs onto buildings, a machine gun firing bullets on a neighborhood church. A complete massacre. A massacre, I must add, that was sanctioned by local authorities. Cops stood passively by (shit most of them joined in and provided the weaponry) as this violence descended on American citizens. Fire departments let the flames blaze as they consumed everything in their path…

Images of Greenwood After 1921 Race Riot
Publicly Filed Images of Greenwood day(s) after 1921 race riot

I know, I know, that’s some heavy shit to end what was supposed to be a “feel good,” piece on. But, unfortunately, heartbreak is a common theme for black folks in America. I wanted to write this piece to show that if we come together as a community we can overcome hurdles that were designed to keep us systematically oppressed, but even when that happens we can never let up or let our guard down. It’s through struggles like the Tulsa Bombings, we as a people look within ourselves to find a sense of community, self-love, and most importantly black success.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s