In a recent article on the Your Black World internet site, Boyce Watkins, a Professor of Finance at New York’s Syracuse University, said he had begun to question the wisdom behind integration. “We can shop where we want, eat where we want and get almost any job at the big fancy corporation down the street,” Watkins observed. “The problem for our community is that … integration, for the most part, was simply prolonged assimilation, like moving into someone else’s home and giving up the keys to your own.”
Nowhere was this more apparent to Boyce Watkins than on his recent visit to Atlanta, Georgia, where he visited the Sweet Auburn neighbourhood where Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. grew up. Comparing photographs of a prosperous Sweet Auburn from the 1940s with the picture of urban decline it makes today, Boyce Watkins wondered if African-Americans had not lost more than they had gained.
“I carefully studied the old pictures of Auburn Street,” Watkins said. “I saw images of proud black business owners, in their finest clothes, driving fancy cars. Of course not everyone was doing well, but we were certainly better at making our own money.” And a recent report seems to bear this out. The level of business ownership among African-Americans was highest during the era of legal segregation, between the 1890s and 1960s, the report indicated.
Among the celebrated black neighbourhoods where black businesses once prospered was Walnut Street in Louisville, Kentucky, where the boxer Muhammad Ali grew up. Also on the list is “The Deuce”, or 2nd Street, in Richmond, Virginia.
“The Deuce” had five black banks, among them the very first black-owned bank in the US, The Savings Bank of the Grand Fountain United Order of True Reformers, which operated between 1889 and 1910. The bank’s owners also invested in a building and loan company, which issued mortgages, and in a real estate firm enabling African-Americans to buy or rent homes. They also owned a black newspaper and began a retirement home for the black elderly.
“The Deuce” was where the US’s first black-owned insurance company, the Southern Aid and Insurance Company, was founded in 1893, and it remained in business for 90 years, until the 1980s.
Another American city that once had a bustling black business district is Charleston, South Carolina. The city’s Morris Street area was home to a rooming house, a real estate company and a restaurant, all of which belonged to a wealthy black family, the Brooks. The family also operated the Brooks Motel, a boarding house where Dr Martin Luther King Jnr. and other prominent African-Americans stayed when in Charleston.
The Brooks Motel, and other grand properties once owned by African-Americans in the Morris Street area, have long since been demolished, much to the dismay of locals like Barney Blakeney, a journalist on a Charleston newspaper.
Blakeney does not believe integration was a “bad thing”, as such – but he is saddened at the damage done to black neighbourhoods by flawed federal government urban-renewal policies and by the exodus to the suburbs that helped produce a generation of alienated and out of touch young African-Americans. The “Lost Boys of Integration”, some have called them.
“I know times have changed, and black people must change with them,” said Blakeney. “But losing the culture that brought us together during periods of trouble and hardship, is not the way to go.” And much has been lost. In 1965, only 8% of black children were born out of wedlock. By 2010, that figure had skyrocketed to 72%. In 1950, the number of African-American women married and living with their husbands was just over 50%. Today, that figure has dropped to just 25%.
Coupled with this crisis in the black family, is an economic crisis, too. Figures show black poverty has increased in the years since integration, not fallen as would have been expected. Fully one third of African-Americans live in poverty, according to a report by the Manhattan Institute think-tank in New York City. And the news is especially bad for the black middle class. A survey found that African-Americans living in the suburbs most often lived in neighbourhoods with whites who were poorer and less educated than they were.
Another study found that middle-aged black professionals were three times more likely than were white professionals to find themselves unemployed, impoverished, and in grave danger of dropping a rung down the class ladder into the working classes.