2020 marks the 50th year since Kent State elongated Carter G Woodson’s Negro History Week into what would be known as Black History Month. During that time span, the month of February has been synonymous with recalling the achievements and triumphs of black people. Academic institutions, businesses, and media sources customarily display their admiration of black accolades in a festive manner. But have these celebratory customs done justice to the history itself?
Over the past decades, Black History Month has typically been skewed to a narrow focus. Athletes and entertainers are fervently cited, political relevance is shifted towards pro civil rights figures (with separatists Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey being notable exceptions) and noted writers typically have a leftist bend. However, this does not tell the whole story. In the centuries black people have lived in the United States, there have been a myriad of developments that counter dominant narratives yet are kept from the spotlight.
The narrative of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wallstreet, for example, is typically told as the demise of an extraordinary black economic pinnacle by the hands of an angry white mob during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot. This gross distortion has been espoused by the likes of Ebony Magazine and One United, the largest black-owned bank in the US. The truth of the matter, as stated by the Greenwood Cultural Center and the Encyclopædia Britannica, is that Tulsa’s Black Wallstreet was rebuilt in 1922 with eighty businesses opened by the end of that year. There would be over 100 more black businesses after the 1921 riot than before. Tulsa’s Black Wallstreet would thrive through the Great Depression but not through desegregation. According to Britannica,
By the end of the 1950s, however, more than half of the businesses had closed. Desegregation allowed the entry of businesses owned by whites, while increasing numbers of African Americans in the community invested in entities outside Greenwood. By 1961, 90 percent of African American income in Tulsa was spent outside of the Greenwood district.
The Greenwood Cultural Center likewise stated,
“the area was rebuilt and thrived…until the 1960s when desegregation allowed blacks to shop in areas from which they were previously restricted.”
What’s more, Tulsa’s Black Wallstreet was not the first testament to black economic success. In Race & Economics, Walter E. Williams mentions the achievements of free blacks in antebellum New Orleans. Said achievements include approximately $2 million worth of property owned by blacks; black operated schools, orphanages, and benevolent societies; “black control of the cigar industry”; and the predominant presence of blacks in skilled trades.
The name George Schuyler is seldom mentioned in today’s discussion of distinguished black writers, although at one point of his career he was “said to be the most radical and widely read negro writer in the country” according to a 1942 FBI report. His extensive literary career aligned him with many other frequently cited black figures from W.E.B Dubois all the way to Ishmael Reed. Aside from authoring the pioneering Afrofuturist novel Black No More , Schuyler was known for his staunch opposition to communism and scathing contrarian commentary on prominent affairs. He was an outspoken critic of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, an active member of the John Birch Society, and opposed the basis of the 1964 Civil Rights bill. Schuyler favored economic freedom and racial relations improvement for black advancement rather than political enforcements. The fact that these sentiments are usually solely attributed to Booker T. Washington shows the headway to be made in exploring black perspectives.
Another forgotten black contrarian of the time was Manning Johnson, who was highly critical of the NAACP for what he perceived as dismissals of black infrastructure and exacerbating racial issues to draw funds. Like Schuyler, Johnson was a stalwart anti-communist having had experience as a high-ranking member of the US Communist Party. Johnson not only testified before the Committee on Un-American Activities twice, but also authored a book on his experiences as a communist: Color, Communism, and Common Sense.
Both Schuyler and Johnson expounded on the almost never mentioned communist presence in the black community during the pre-civil rights era. One can gain insight from both men on little-known peculiarities such as: Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a black communist standout who wound up brutally tortured to death in the gulag; Angelo Herndon, a black communist labor organizer whose insurrection charge granted him national attention; the 1931 Camp Hill, Alabama incident, a sharecropper unionization attempt by a white communist organizer that resulted in multiple lynchings, injuries, and arrests; and slew of other topics obscured by the passing of time.
Continuing the current patterns of Black History Month will forgo opportunities to uncover and explore the vast complexities of black history. There have been a plethora of significant occurrences and remarkable individuals that display the dynamic nature of black people’s past in ways that far surpass the confined vision that dominates Black History Month. A more holistic and critical approach is needed to attain an outlook that truly reflects black history.