The Oklahoma bombing in 1995 is considered the worst terrorist event in the history of Oklahoma with 168 deaths. However, little or no mention is made in historic accounts of the horrific killing of an estimated 3,000 African-Americans in the black neighbourhood of Greenwood in the northern part of the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma on the 31st of May and the 1st of June 1921. Officially the incident has been classified as race riots with distorted casualty figures varying between 39 and 300. What is not in dispute is that a huge majority of the dead were African-American.
The African-American neighbourhood of Greenwood was all but levelled out by gangs of white vigilantes led by the Ku Klux Klan. The massacre was a result of jealousy and envy because Greenwood was a prosperous black community that thrived under segregation laws. African-American businesses flourished and the community developed so much so that white communities on the south side became bitter and envious of wealth and prosperity on the north side. The story of The Black Wall Street is filled with many lessons that will help our own country and communities to prosper in much the same way.
1. Local production and buying local goods and services creates prosperity.
Segregation laws meant that blacks were not allowed to shop in white areas. As a result, black entrepreneurship flourished in Greenwood.
A modern business centre housed banks, fashion stores, hotels, cinemas and other trades. There were 21 Churches, 21 Restaurants, 30 grocery stores and 2 cinemas. The local bus service was owned by a black doctor, bringing him a revenue of $500 ($6,000 in today’s money). There were black attorneys, doctors, architects, and PhD Scholars. All these trades and businesses thrived because local people used them almost exclusively.
As Africans, we must take the lessons from this story and encourage local production and trade. African countries are the most resource rich in the world, and yet most are still net importers of finished products. There is a culture of preferring imported goods to local goods and services. We still largely export raw materials for value to be added abroad before buying the same materials in finished goods at inflated prices. The DRC exports coltan that is used in the manufacture of mobile phones and yet we do not have a single African produced mobile phone brand.
We not only supply the raw materials, we even supply the labour abroad to make the products. A study by the NAACP in the US showed that 43 million African-Americans have a combined spending power of $1.1trillion dollars. In comparison, it is estimated that African consumer spending will reach $1 trillion by 2020. This is because we are not producing goods locally and cheaply. As a result, goods are out of the reach of most consumers.
2. Retaining money within our communities compounds prosperity.
African-Americans in Greenwood were excellent at retaining money locally. It is estimated that a dollar was circulated 36 to 100 times within the Greenwood community, which meant that a dollar could spend as much as a year in the community.
For comparative purposes, a dollar can spend a month in Asian communities, 20 days in Jewish communities, 17 days in white communities and only 6 hours in modern day black communities in the USA. How much time does a dollar spend in Africa I wonder?
They achieved this by producing goods and services locally and encouraging citizens to buy locally to almost exclusive levels.
As a result of this retention of money, it was reinvested locally and increased the wealth and prosperity to levels not seen in the adjacent white neighbourhoods. The wealth also funded an education system that was far superior to surrounding areas.
As mentioned, as Africans we are net importers. This means that very little of our money is retained locally. The fact that Zimbabwe is facing a cash crisis is an indication of just how much we are losing to imports. The average time that money spends in African communities is unknown, but a study of African-Americans by the NAACP indicates money currently stays in the black communities of the US for just 6 hours. The rate is likely to be significantly lower in African communities.
3. Sanctions and other similar measures can be the making of our communities.
There can be no doubt that segregation laws forced the residents of Greenwood to find solutions. As already mentioned, the laws created an entrepreneurial spirit combined with a willingness to support local businesses, thereby creating an opportunity for entrepreneurship and other professions to flourish. They did not allow the laws to limit them.
It must be remembered that segregation laws were not limited to Greenwood, but to many states in the US. However, the residents of Greenwood saw the opportunity to progress in the absence of any outside competition. After the massacre, desegregation had the opposite effect as money began to migrate to other areas as African-Americans were allowed to spend elsewhere.
Countless examples exist of countries that have thrived under sanctions and restrictions. Iran, for example, has been under sanctions for decades but has a GDP (PPP) of over 4 times the average SADC country. Greenwood is an example of how restrictions such as segregation can work to the advantage of a community. But perhaps the bigger lesson is that we can do it on our own and that the key to growth is internal, not external. We have to adapt and innovate.
4. When education is structured and tailored for Africans, our culture and values, it can achieve so much more.
The residents of Greenwood placed emphasis on the importance of education and developed an education system of their own. While it cannot be said that it was original, the Greenwood education system was tailored to suit African values and culture including a firm moral and dress code. As a result, it was far superior to education systems in surrounding areas and produced high-quality tradesmen who were highly likely to stay in the area to increase local prosperity.
As Africans, we have inherited an education system and have made minor adjustments to it. We must recognise that we must tailor our systems to suit our own cultures and needs. Most of the content is from a western perspective which means that we are raising our children to pursue pride in being like other races. This strips them of self-esteem and the type of self-belief that is required to build communities like Greenwood.
5. Prosperity does not come from approval and acceptance by other races and communities, but through acceptance and pride in ourselves.
The key to the success of Greenwood was buying local. That only happened because there was pride in local produce. With local support, the quality of goods and services increased to high levels, including the education system. They built their community on their own volition without having to justify their structures, their tastes, and products to the adjacent white communities. The area had 21 restaurants serving various cuisines, the majority being African-American. Local goods and services, including fashion, evolved to suit the tastes of locals.
The top 10 richest countries in the world all have one thing in common: they have identifiable local cultures that have been handed down through generations. Countries like Qatar, Germany and Russia use the local language as the official language, and their citizens are more likely to have local names. They celebrate local heroes and set aside days to celebrate local culture. Embracing culture and language have the effect of boosting self-esteem. Without it, we cannot believe in the collective and in ourselves as we constantly focus on pursuing other cultures that we really do not understand.
6. Affirmative action works.
Racial nepotism was encouraged in Greenwood through employing and trading almost exclusively with locals. Emphasis was also placed on educating local children to higher standards than those in surrounding areas.
There is nothing wrong with promoting your own over others. In the UK supermarkets that sell British products are favoured over those who do not. The very reason for Brexit was to protect jobs for locals. As Africans, we must protect local markets and favour locals for jobs. The effects of local jobs and services on money retention and, ultimately, on prosperity have already been discussed.
7. We must write our own history and tell our stories based on our own experiences.
There can be no doubt that the Greenwood massacre was an act of terrorism. To date, it is still officially classified as a race riot. Official records say only 39 people were killed, but those who were there have the number closer to 3,000. Almost 10,000 were left homeless to face a harsh winter.
The number of those who died from despair; starvation and disease related to homelessness during the winter remain unaccounted. The damage and destruction to homes and businesses are valued at $1.5m ($20m in today’s money). The true figure will probably never be known. But that is because the story has never been told with the input of the African Americans who experienced it, but by white people whose agenda was a cover-up.
Developed countries understand the importance of telling their own story in triumphant ways. They commission artistic work such as paintings and statues as symbols of a glorious past. Great companies use PR machines to mould their image because they understand the effect on both the morale of staff and the image customers hold. As Africans, we must tell our own stories in glorious and heroic ways; ways that create self-belief in our citizens and the next generations.
8. Sovereignty is priceless.
Perhaps the biggest weakness of Greenwood is that it was not sovereign but was subject to prevailing US laws. It meant that those in power could meddle in the affairs of Greenwood at will. This power was used to deputise gangs of white men as a result of a rumoured assault on a white woman by a black man. Most of them were members of the Ku Klux Klan and were given the power to effect untold destruction on an entire community.
Even in the aftermath, no assistance was received from the government for the homeless and those who lost their livelihoods. No reparations were every made.
When outsiders interfere in local issues, the result is seldom positive.
One has to only look at Iraq, Syria, and Somalia to see the consequences. That is because local issues can only ever be understood by local people. No matter how much can be explained to an outsider, local nuances can never be fully appreciated. That is why, for us to have stability and the progress that comes with it, we must defend African sovereignty.
9. Last and certainly not least, WE CAN DO IT.
Greenwood is an example of what happens when Africans unite and support each other. They produced a community that was the envy of surrounding areas. Such was the prosperity that resulted that while there were only 2 airports in the entire state, 6 black residents of Greenwood owned their own private planes. The wealthiest were known to take the odd shopping trip to Paris. The average home was luxurious and had modern innovations such as indoor plumbing.
When we unite and believe, we can be as great as we want to be. Africa is ready to lead the world. For so long the discourse surrounding Africa has been of negativity and failure. Unity and belief in ourselves will take us to greatness. The example set in Greenwood should be held up as a beacon of our ability.
by Allan Mukudu