By Elizabeth Wright [Reprinted from Issues & Views Summer 1993]
Every demonstration of pathology offers the chance to submit "proposals" for yet newer and trendier social programs that will, of course, require the input of the black elites' wise and judicious expertise. Black social problems offer unlimited fodder for workshop topics and themes for the endless string of conferences funded by Philip Morris or Anheuser-Busch, and hosted by the growing numbers of black social scientists and talk circuit riders.
We encounter them almost everywhere. Indigent black men who wander the streets and public places of towns and cities, stationing themselves as unwanted doormen at entrances to stores and cash machines, begging for pittances in train and bus stations, making pests of themselves as they accost the windshields of cars, foraging in trash cans, and begging even from children. A seemingly endless stream of lost souls with time on their hands and no place to go.
Are these men faced with the possibility of night riders bent on destroying whatever they create, as was S.B. Fuller, in 1930s Louisiana, who came close to a face-off with the Klan, yet went on to establish and expand his phenomenally successful Fuller Products, which eventually employed hundreds of blacks across the country?
Are these men living under the burden of oppressive Jim Crow legislation as did Henry Allen Boyd who, nevertheless, in the 1920s, developed one business after another in Nashville, founded a bank to provide capital for other entrepreneurs, all the while working to reform racist laws?
Surely, today's drifters need not be fearful of amassing capital lest it be snatched from them, a possibility that must have worried William Pettiford who, nevertheless, in 1899, as head of the Alabama Penny Loan and Savings Bank, provided loans to his fellow blacks, a task that gave him great pride and satisfaction.
How did the men who are today's vagabonds become so bereft of a sense of mission, if only for themselves? How is it that most of them have no knowledge of the black men who, long before America's official slavery ended, long before anything called an Emancipation Proclamation, had the confidence to make the most of their free status and sustained their families in dignity? What force of circumstance so totally cut off today's derelicts from that tradition of blacks who would have preferred to die rather than be viewed as anything except a "credit to the race?"
The very real restrictions on black economic mobility in the past have been recounted in many sources. Historian John Sibley Butler describes the mass of legislation, especially in the South, that was designed to limit the black man's ability to effectively compete in the marketplace with whites. Such laws forced blacks into what Butler calls an "economic detour," as they attempted, like members of all other groups, to create economic foundations through business enterprise. Biased laws denied them the ability to expand their enterprises beyond the borders of black communities.
Yet, in spite of these legal maneuvers, over the generations, tens of thousands of black men mastered the economic principles that drove American society. Under the guidance and encouragement of leaders like Booker T. Washington, a great many managed to prosper even within a limited economic niche. Butler reports that between 1867 and 1917, the number of black-owned businesses increased from 4,000 to 50,000.
All of this business activity is evidence of the family bonds that were strongly in place as brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, and offspring worked together to maintain the family businesses. In economist Thomas Sowell's studies, he describes the critical importance of trust among members of various immigrant groups, as they re-establish their lives in new countries, pooling resources and putting off immediate pleasures. Sowell claims that a sense of trust among members is the key to any group's future progress. Among blacks, in this early period, the examples of familial cooperation are legion.
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