Our past was certainly all about the money. As soon as the Europeans discovered the Americas and determined that Native Americans weren’t going to submit to slavery, they went to Africa for their slaves. The first slave ship was dedicated to the Pope (Vatican) in 1516 A.D. for his blessing. He loved the idea, and so it began—349 years of pure hell (longer for our South American brothers). Slaves work as drones and require little food. They are expendable and can be replaced on a continuing basis. It wasn’t cheap labor, it was free labor that was forced on us. It was all about the money as farmers and every phase of the economy were enhanced through this travesty to our fellow man.
At the end of slavery in the United States, most slaves became sharecroppers, a little step up from slavery. It, too, was all about the money. Some found a way out by applying for a Homestead grant. The Homestead Act of 1862 was a system of granting plots of land, usually 160 acres to applicants willing to settle in new territories. Blanch Bruce of Mississippi, the first Black U.S. senator, would encourage free Blacks to take advantage of this. My grandfather, Tom Harry Alford, received his 160 acres in 1916. Prior to that, his father received his 160-acre land grant in 1901. They lived off that land—farming, hunting, fishing and selling what they didn’t use for themselves.
It was Booker T. Washington who told our people to stay where they are, work the land and get educated and whenever you can, start a business and do business with each other. He was telling us that America is built through capitalism and we must become capitalistic to prosper. We began to understand the importance of building wealth and being educated. So impressed were the leaders of White America that President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to the White House for dinner and discussion. There was an extreme backlash for having a Black man come to the White House to discuss business. Industrial tycoons such as Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie were so impressed that they began funding his projects and encouraging him to proceed with his dream. Washington built Tuskegee Institute as an example to quality education. The Ford Foundation still provides funding to the school. He also started the National Negro Business League, a forerunner to the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
There was an organized effort to stop the progress that was being made. White progressive groups from up North started new rival organizations such as the NAACP and National Urban League to promote government guidance for Blacks. Others had harsher plans such as burning business sectors in Black communities such as Greenwood, Oklahoma and Durham, N.C. The Ku Klux Klan became a major organization and had the blessings of President Woodrow Wilson. They even marched in Washington, D.C. with no fear.
Blacks were soon being encouraged to become comfortable with living poor and being third class citizens. Booker T. Washington noticed another phenomenon among the Black population: “There is a class of colored people who make a business of keeping the troubles, the wrongs and the hardships of the Negro race before the public. Having learned that they are able to make a living out of their troubles, they have grown into the settled habit of advertising their wrongs—partly because they want sympathy and partly because it pays. Some of these people do not want the Negro to lose his grievances, because they do not want to lose their jobs.”
Oh, how this still rings true today.
We need to turn back to education and entrepreneurship. The lessons taught to us by Booker T. Washington still apply today. We need economic parity. Our businesses have annual revenue of $136 billion. If there was parity, that annual revenue would be $1.4 trillion. Our businesses hire 910,000 workers but if we had parity we would hire 7.1 million workers. We have 1.9 million Black-owned businesses but with parity we would have 3.3 million firms. These demographics are the courtesy of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency.
Black business has come a long way over the last 30 years, but we have many miles to go before we stop being mired in poverty and economic abuse from all sides. For one thing, we could start doing business with one another. The University of Georgia states that as consumers we have disposable income of more than $1 trillion. Yet our businesses only produce $136 billion in sales. I know Mercedes, Rolex and other White-owned companies like our disposable income but we need to take care of ourselves. “God bless the child who has his own” sang the great Billie Holliday. My people, please remember that our future must be all about the money.
(Harry C. Alford is the co-founder, president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. Website: ; e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>.)