“Integration hurt black businesses. There used to be black businesses all up and down Jefferson Avenue and William Street!”
This essay is a follow up to my piece discussing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the burning house, and Dr. Claud Anderson’s prophecies involving the issues plaguing Black Americans today. In this piece I will discuss whether a result of “Social Integration” contributed to the destruction of black businesses. While we celebrate the victories of the Civil Rights Movement, many have questioned the aftereffects of those historic victories.
Many of my writings discuss growing up in Buffalo, NY as a member of “Generation X”, specifically, some of the familial, social, cultural and racial aspects. My generation grew up in Buffalo following the exodus of the city’s steel industry, in addition to the ‘post-Civil Rights’ era. Our elders, the “Silent Generation” and the “Baby Boomers”, grew up in Buffalo when the steel industry boomed and experienced the Civil Rights era. You could argue that we came of age literally in two different worlds and are now existing as adults in two different worlds mentally.
The opening quote of this piece comes from a gentleman named “Gus”. Gus is a retired black business owner, a Baby Boomer who owned a steak shop near the corner of Jefferson Avenue and William Street in Buffalo. In addition to the pizza and wings it’s classically known for, there are also numerous steak shops that make nice greasy Philadelphia-style cheese steaks which is what Gus’s restaurant, “Gusto’s”, specialized in. They were very tasty, let me tell you.
Gus was the stepfather of one of my best friends and at many holiday gatherings there were talks of the ‘old Buffalo’ when there was an abundance of black businesses. Readers familiar with our city might associate that time as being the pre-Humboldt Parkway expressway era. In addition to the steel industry and a vibrant city economy, not having the Humboldt Parkway expressway there is something else I can’t imagine, as it has been there my entire life, running from downtown Buffalo out to the suburbs and to the airport.
Gus’s revelation amazed me as I couldn’t imagine our city any other way than what I’d seen in my 20 plus years, at the time. If what he said was true, there was an abundance of black proprietors and entrepreneurs located on real estate which is now considered blighted and more than a little bit rough. I went into that neighborhood quite a bit to play basketball at the William-Emslie YMCA, but I didn’t hang around there much otherwise.
So, what happened to those black businesses? Where did they go? And why does it matter 40-50 years later? Gus and many others attributed it to “Social Integration” following the Civil Rights Movement.
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Civil Rights and Social Integration are most discussed in terms of education, access to jobs and the right to use the same facilities as other races. Key efforts of the Civil Rights Movement involved securing voting rights and desegregating society in general; most notably in education, the professional world and the desegregation of public institutions down to drinking fountains and bathrooms.
The end result was that black people could now go to the same schools as white people and could, in theory, have equal employment and access to all parts of society. I said in theory because there was still separation of races and ethnic groups. Growing up I heard stories of white flight in my hometown (and other urban areas) as black families spread out into white communities. Apparently, the neighborhoods which were mostly black in the era that I grew up in, were once mostly white, but gradually became all black as those white residents fled to the suburbs.
Growing up, the definition of Social Integration was usually discussed in societal contexts. One was dating. My father once told me the story of a classmate in college taking a verbal jab at him, saying that ‘integration’ was his favorite subject mathematically, because it was a thought that he liked white women. But what are the other contexts for integration? Yes, and perhaps the biggest is Business/Economics.
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The prelude to this piece is my essay regarding Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the burning house. In the second half of that document I introduced Dr. Claud Anderson, a staunch advocate of reparations and black economic empowerment. Check out that piece for an in-depth discussion of Dr. Anderson and his philosophies. I also referenced Dr. Anderson’s interview on the popular radio show, “The Breakfast Club”. I wanted to include excerpts from the interview in my Dr. King piece, but I realized that it warranted its own separate essay. The following dialogue between Dr. Anderson and one of the hosts, Charlemagne “Tha God” sheds light on what happened to black businesses across the United Sates following Social Integration:
Dr. Claud Anderson: I grew up in Winston-Salem, NC and we weren’t looking for any Social Integration. Do you know why? It’s because we had our own businesses there. My family had the only black bus line in the entire United States, the only black bus line! And when I say a bus line, I’m not talking about two or three buses. We had over 500 buses in Winston-Salem, NC! And guess what, we had that from 1927 up to about 1967.
In Winston-Salem we Blacks also had our own cab companies, our own restaurants, our own hotels, our own school systems. Do you know what killed our buses? Social Integration. When suddenly you all started talking about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. going down to Montgomery, AL wanting to integrate the bus lines – integrate whose bus lines? White bus lines! They didn’t want to own or control the resources. They just wanted to sit in the front of them (the buses).
Now you tell me. What does that indicate? That you want to get on the bus and just sit on the front of it? Now if the bus is moving, then the back of the bus will be where the front of the bus was in a fraction of a second, and everybody gets off at the same time. So, in Winston-Salem we had our own buses, so when that movement was successful and the blacks who were in Alabama came up to Winston-Salem, blacks in Winston-Salem said, ‘We want to ride in the front of white buses!’ We said, ‘We don’t have any white buses.’ They said, ‘Well get some, so we can ride on the front of them!’
Charlemagne “Tha God”: I feel like a complete asshole because I never thought about that. That whole time they should’ve been trying to establish their own bus companies as opposed to wanting to ride someone else’s. You all boycotted for a year just to want to ride in the front? I never thought about that (laughing).
Dr. Claud Anderson: You’re a smart man! In our “Safe Bus Company” – you can find out about that on your computers. See, we owned the buses. We owned the resources. All our mechanics were black. All our drivers were black. Our electricians were black. Everything was black!
We each had two cab companies in Winston-Salem. The whites had the Blue Bird and the Yellow Cab Companies. We had the Harris and the Camel City Cabs. But guess what. Once that integration movement started, do you know what they wanted? Blacks didn’t want to ride in black cabs anymore. They wanted to ride in the white cabs. In Winston-Salem, we had our own movie theaters, the Lincoln and the Lafayette. There was a Lincoln and Lafayette in every black section of every major city in the United States. The whites had three movie theaters. They had the Far Sight, the Carolina, and the State Theaters. We didn’t care, because we had our own movie theaters. So, guess what. Blacks didn’t want to go to the black theaters anymore, we wanted to go to the white theaters.
Charlemagne “Tha God”: We swear white ice is colder!
Dr. Claud Anderson: I saw that happen once. I was in Tallahassee, FL giving a speech. I was standing on the corner talking to a black real estate developer. A black guy owned a grocery store across the street. A guy pulled up and we watched him, like me and you are talking now. He pulled up to the grocery store and went over to the ice machine. He opened an ice container and pulled out a bag of ice. He looked at the ice container, rolled it around and then put it back into the machine.
He then turned around, backed his car up to where we were standing to a place called Jack’s Liquor. He went into the ice machine and it was made by the same company. He looked at it, rolled it around and then went inside and bought it. I told the person I was with that, ‘I’d never seen that before! I’m going to ask him about it when he comes out of the store. I said, “Sir, let me ask you a question. Why is it that you would not buy the ice from the ice machine over there at the black grocery store, but you came over here to Jack’s Liquor?”
He said, ‘Oh I don’t want to buy Mr. Williams’ ice. I don’t like it. It’s too lumpy! White ice is smoother.’ I said, ‘I know white ice is colder, but now I also know it’s smoother.’
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“Black folks never learned the importance of owning and controlling!” I think this quote from Dr. Anderson sums up this whole discussion. I must admit though that it’s much more nuanced than that. Why would a race of people completely forsake their own businesses to patronize someone else’s? I think that after enduring chattel slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and segregation, I believe that there was a mass psychological need to feel whole, to feel equal and for acceptance by the larger white society, which is understandable. But is there a point where it went too far?
Something black people in the United States still struggle with as a race today is a sense of belonging. This happens both within our own race, and then regarding what’s referred as the Dominant Society. It’s crazy to wrap your mind around all of it, but it’s real. If you’re black and are perceived as having too many white qualities, you’re not black enough. And there are black people who feel more comfortable assimilating into the Dominant Society. Some are accepted, but it can also be a never-ending quest for some, with consequences on both sides.
Though we had what we needed in our communities, there was still a need to be accepted and to have access to things that were denied to us, socially and in terms of white-collar careers. But did that require forsaking our own businesses and economic power? Not only were there once black businesses, but also black institutions of all kinds. Black Wall Street in Tulsa, OK comes to mind and there are numerous stories about it being destroyed and why.
But there were also the Negro Leagues. It’s amazing to think that all the great black baseball players were once all concentrated in one league and that league eventually died out so they could integrate the Major Leagues. The same thing is true for our Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). There was a point at which they got the best and brightest black students and even athletes. Now they’re competing with larger and more well-funded Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs). Many have permanently closed for this reason.
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Not only have we put most of our emphasis on attaining white collar careers to work in institutions created by others, but there are also issues about creating and sustaining our own black businesses today. In many circles you hear stories of black people not supporting each other’s businesses, but supporting those of other groups. You hear stories of poor service. You hear stories of the services or goods being too expensive and of lesser quality. Then there are also many, many stories of black patrons wanting ‘hookups’ or discounts simply because the proprietors are black. There are also discussions that black entrepreneurs must be careful about solely targeting black people as their customer base, based upon the issues described.
Nevertheless, I do think that we must figure out how to retake ownership of our economic power. In my essay about Dr. King’s vision of the burning house, I listed Dr. Claud Anderson’s points for rebuilding black communities. He first described building communities and families and then figuring out how to keep the dollars within the community. Growing up on Buffalo’s eastside, I only have memories of corner stores being owned by Asians and Arabs. Go into any inner-city now and you’ll see the same thing for the most part. Most of the convenience stores, beauty, hair and nail shops are, in fact, owned by Arabs and Asians, some of whom have responded to customers with violence in retaliation to toxic behaviors towards them which in some neighborhoods are the norm.
There have been numerous stories in recent times of violence being perpetrated against black women at beauty supply shops, for example. Men, such as Tyrone Muhammad in Chicago, took steps to protect the women and tried to send a message to the foreign proprietors by throwing a brick through their window. After getting out of jail, he returned to the shop to see the same women getting their nails done, like nothing had ever happened, as opposed to her finding black nail shops.
I’m going to close this piece by saying that I’ve been blessed based upon the family I grew up in, and that I was able to ascend academically and professionally. One of my professors at Johnson C. Smith University told me numerous stories about the racism he endured when working on his Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati. Aside from the challenging work itself, my doctoral studies as the University of Michigan were mostly smooth. I do acknowledge though that the Civil Rights Movement was critical in providing me the opportunities to go to school.
Furthermore, after being locked out of parts of society and suffering through the hardships endured by the descendants of African Slaves in the United States, it’s understandable that the focus would be on inclusion and assimilation into society. That said, much of it seems to have been done at the expense our own black economy, and going forward, if possible, we must figure out how to rebuild it as most everything seems to stem from it. Other groups have maintained and built their economic power. We should too.
The featured image of this piece is that of the street signs of Grider Street and Kensington Avenue on Buffalo’s eastside. The McDonald’s I worked at in my late teens, which was black owned, sits further down the street from that sign on Delevan Avenue and Grider Street. During that time, I think there were two other McDonald’s restaurants on the eastside that were black owned. The image in the middle of the piece was once again generated by “Creative Designs” by the very talented Tamara Coleman. If you want to learn more about Tamara and her work, contact her via email at: Tammyfirstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you agree or disagree with anything I’ve said in this piece? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below. Thank you for taking the time to read this blog post. If you enjoyed this one, you might also enjoy:
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• A Black History Month reflection on Percy Julian
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• A Black History Month look at West Indian Archie
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• A review of All Eyez On Me
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