‘Black business’ is dead — and that’s a good thing
By Aaron Freeman
Black business empires, as we’ve mostly known them, have been the products of racism.
Johnson Publishing flourished because white magazines didn’t attend to the interests of colored people. If you wanted to read about great boxer Joe Louis, singer Nat “King” Cole or ogle a fine brown beauty of the week, you’d best be reading Ebony and Jet.
White taxis didn’t make pickups in Negro neighborhoods, so robust networks of jitney cabs provided transport and employment to a generation of Chicago coloreds.
Then came the civil rights movement and its damn integration that wrecked segregation businesses. Chicago and the rest of the U.S. got way more black folk-friendly. Our shopping options were no longer limited to the South and West sides. We could not only shop at F.W. Woolworth’s, we could eat at its lunch counter — yes, it was still boring Caucasian chow, but post-segregation, we could legally eat it!
We didn’t have to buy our hair products from Johnson Products — we could get them from Revlon. We could read about colored celebrities in Time and Newsweek. The famed “talented tenth” of the Negro community was not stuck on the impoverished West Side. They didn’t have to stay in the ghetto — and, surprise, surprise, they didn’t. They took their smarts, drive and culture out of the old neighborhoods, downtown and to the North Shore.
We now know Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream fell short. Black and white boys and girls were playing together as sisters and brothers by the end of the decade he spoke those words in. His dream didn’t include the empowerment of women or gays or people with disabilities or Hispanics or Asians, for that matter. He couldn’t have imagined that the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, the poster child for segregation, would find Jesus and become so strong an advocate of integration that he got 80 percent of the black vote when he ran for re-election as governor a few years later. In King’s wildest dreams, there was no Barack Obama. In 1963, American Negros were awash in optimism when James Meredith became the first Negro to graduate from the University of Mississippi. We all knew education was the ticket to freedom and success.
The ticket is still being vigorously punched. As rough as some of the numbers look for modern black men, every decade, the number and percentage of black men who earn a college degree increase. In 1990 the proportion of black males over age 25 who had completed college was 11.1 percent. By 2000 it was 13.2 percent and by 2010 15.8 percent. If trends continue, we’ll be at 20 percent by 2020.
What if we are all James Meredith now? Ours is a world of massive open online courses. In the 21st century, a black parent need not merely dream of getting her child a Harvard University education. She can get one herself online free and tutor the kid herself to an even better one!
In 2013 there are more than 50,000 black business owners in the city of Chicago. Their annual household income is more than $75,000. They have above-average rates of education, homeownership and car ownership. They lead communities, influence opinions and hire people. Any one of them or their kids could be the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates or Elon Musk (who is, by the way, an African).
Maybe the lack of celebrated, segregation-based black business empires masks a roiling cauldron of ebony entrepreneurs. Maybe those brothers and sisters are right now building the networks that will support the next explosion of black enterprise fueled by the current gains in black education.
Maybe, to quote from “Purlie,” by playwright and actor Ossie Davis, “the world ain’t comin’ to an end, my friend. The world is comin’ to a start.” Perhaps we fret now because we are all James Meredith and MLK. Maybe our only problem is that the future of black businesses in Chicago is brighter than most of us dare to believe.
Aaron Freeman is a comedian, filmmaker, director, teacher, commentator and creator of the satire “Council Wars.”