Reflections on what could have been

Native Intelligence

Reflections on what could have been

There are interesting parallels between the US and colonial ear Africa where policies and actions were deliberately designed to thwart African entrepreneurship. The ramifications linger to this day, writes our regular columist  Kalundi Serumaga

To clear up any possibility of misunderstanding: I must reassure our readers that I was as surprised as I imagine they must have been, to find that my name had not been included in the December 2018 issue of New African’s list of the 100 most influential Africans.

Given my humble and self-effacing manner, I do understand how the editorial department could have committed such an oversight, and bear them no ill-will over it. I fully expect to be just as influential this time next year, so there will be another opportunity to get it right.

Such reflections on the mysteries of frustrated ambition led my mind to an American neighborhood called Greenwood, in the northern part of the city of Tulsa, in the mid-western state of Oklahoma, US.

Today, Tulsa holds a population of nearly four hundred thousand, and functions like any small American city. One hundred years ago, the story was different. Greenwood alone, with nearly 80,000residents was the largest, and the wealthiest of all the neighbourhoods occupied by Americans of African descent through enslavement.

It was known as a ‘Freedmens’ town. These were settlements established by emancipated former slaves. Having started as a small settlement, it was to grow into a thriving black town within a town referred to as ‘the Black Wall Street’.

In June 1921, this ‘Little Africa’, was burned to the ground. During one day of mayhem, over 70% of the town holding an estimated 108 Black-owned businesses including 41 grocery and meat markets,30 restaurants, one hospital, several churches, 11 lodges and other establishments, was destroyed.

Using the pretext of defending the honour of a young White lady who was said to claim to have been accosted by a black youth (a serious transgression of the US apartheid racial code then in place), Tulsa’s white residents proceeded to invade and the destroy Greenwood and its inhabitants.

The spark was a standoff between some members of the Black community who sought to prevent a White lynch mob from forcibly seizing the accused young man from the police jail.

Many black residents tried to defend themselves and their property. This was because the law enforcement officers, all White, either merely looked on or, in some cases, actually joined in the pogrom. Over 6,000 Black people were rounded up, and held in the town stadium and baseball park.

When it was all over, the girl in question denied ever making the accusation.

The aggravation did not stop there.

The community lost out on insurance claims, or government assistance to rebuild there shattered lived. The attack was deemed a ‘riot’, and thus not covered by insurance.

The White-led civic authorities then went ahead to extend the border of the city proper to include much of the areas burned down. This had another implication: the city’s ‘fire limits’ regulations required that any building within those limits had to be built of concrete or stone. The Black Tulsa neighborhood, now impoverished and denied insurance payments, by and large could not afford this.

An official US government report noted: “Because of the general lack of sympathy in white Tulsa for the conditions faced by the African American community, blacks in Tulsa were left largely to their own devices to rebuild their homes and businesses without direct assistance from the city and their insurance companies….. despite the Herculean efforts of the Red Cross and the East End Welfare Board… more than 1000 Greenwood blacks were forced to spend the winter of 1921-22 living in tents…”

That particular clause is remarkably similar to the equally systemic discrimination against Black African businesses in colonial Uganda. The most lucrative area of business, especially in agricultural commodities, was in the wholesale market. Africans were routinely denied wholesale trading licenses, because the law stipulated that dealers had to own a building made of concrete or stone.

Exclusion policies

From the outset, Black Africans had been administratively excluded from any role in the colonial economy beyond farm and urban labouring. The processing and marketing stages of production were legally reserved for non-Africans.

In the book: The Social Origins of Violence in Uganda, historians Kasozi, Nakanyike, and Sejjengo list a whole body of measures aimed at frustrating African ambition:

“As early as the 1890s, the colonial state began excluding Africans from the processing and marketing stages of production- the most lucrative in the colony’s commodity-based economy. Kabaka Mwanga tried to buy a saw-mill but was prevented by the authorities from doing so.

“In 1909, Governor Bell ordered the destruction of hand-gins, which handled some thirty-five per cent of cotton produced in the colony…. In 1913, Kina Kulya Growers’ Society of Ssingo Farmers was discouraged from marketing its own cotton. The Cotton Rules of 1918 restricted middlemen from operating within five miles of a ginnery, all of which were owned by foreigners.

“The Buganda Growers’ Association tried to market its own cotton in 1923, but was discouraged by the government. Four years later, Sepiriya Kaddumukasa tried to erect a ginnery on his own land but was refused a licence.

“In 1920 the Buganda Cotton Company was prevented from ginning and marketing its own cotton. In 1932, when the Uganda Cotton Society tried to obtain high prices by ginning and marketing its own cotton and “eliminating the Indian middleman,’ it was not allowed to do so. In the same year, the Native Marketing Ordinance (Coffee) curtailed the buying activities of African businessmen.”

Racist jealousy

A simple word for this is malice – in both cases. Some historians argue that the Greenwood conflagration was a simple sense of racist jealously over the achievement of the African American community, by their White compatriots. It would appear that African progress is an unwelcome idea for White power, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Part of the anti-colonial agitations were in fact about the right to trade and to raise capital. Even the banks that did exist back then would rarely lend to Africans, despite their capital base being made up of statutory savings from trades in African-grown cash crops.

Since activists, like Walter Rodney began dissecting the structural background to how African, and wider Black poverty and “underdevelopment” were created. There has been a greater recognition of the need to make links between each current situation, and its past.

After Uganda’s Independence, two banks were established that were critical to the accessing of credit for locals. One was owned by the state-linked Co-operative Societies, and the other by the state.

They were to be joined by a number of African-owned banks that cropped up in the early, more optimistic days of the current government, when it seized power 30 years ago.

All these were swept away by the neoliberal reforms that were imposed in the early 1990s, at the behest of the World Bank. At present, an interesting situation has been unfolding in Uganda’s parliament, in which it is being revealed that the decisions and methods of shutting these banks down and selling their assets were not guided by any laid-down procedures, and seemed to have been driven by perhaps political, as opposed to regulatory, considerations.

Today, Uganda has no bank owned by Ugandans.

Greenwood, on the other hand, was eventually rebuilt by its residents. NA


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Written by Kalundi Serumaga

Kalundi Serumaga is a cultural activist agitating through theatre, journalism and creative writing. He lives in Kampala, Uganda. He has been engaged also in a long-standing case before the Ugandan courts, challenging a ban on his radio work placed on him by the Ugandan government.

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