There was a time when Durham NC was known as the "Black Wall Street of the South." However, today, when I walk down the streets of the former Mecca of black economic achievement, I see only the residue of what was once great. The black owned business which were once an inspiration for generations of African Americans have been replaced by white owned shops selling iced lattes.
I always find it insulting when the media ,rhetorically , ask why has Durham fallen from a black economic paradise " to a refuge for the underprivileged and chronic underachievers?" Faux naivete' aside, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure it out.
Manifest Destiny; urban renewal; land grab; a darn freeway through Grandma's backyard. Take your pick. It all adds up to the gentrification of the black community.
The economic and cultural rape of people African descent did not start in the 21th century but goes back thousands of years when the Greeks stole black culture from the Ancient Egyptians according to historians like George GM James and William Leo Hansberry. Also during the 15th century, beginning with Portugal, European countries began to rob Africa of her resources. According to Basil Davidson in his book' "The Transatlantic Slave Trade" the initial overtures of partnership and mutual respect eventually resulted in the slaughter of untold millions of African people and the colonization of a continent.
In America, during the 18th and 19th centuries, the enslaved Africans contributed centuries of free labor to the economic development of a country that would not allow them share in its wealth.
The early 20th century brought about the establishment of black business centers in various United States cities, including Durham. During that period ,segregation made black owned businesses a necessity, as African Americans were not allowed to patronize white establishments. This came to an end with the movement towards integration during the Civil Rights Era. At this point, black business began to lose their influence as African Americans began to protest to patronize white businesses, leaving behind the establishments owned by their friends and neighbors.
While it is still widely believed that integration was a moral decision, it was mostly economic, as white business owners saw the profit in milking the resources from the black community.
Yes, urban renewal has destroyed more black communities than Hurricane Katrina. Ask long time elderly residents of Durham about the fate of Black Wall Street and they will tell you with tears in their eyes the devastating effect that the paving of the freeway and other urban renewal projects had on their community.
In more recent years, we began to see a new gentrification strategy being played out, not only in Durham, but in 'hoods across the country. Although the locations may change, the methods of operation remain the same.
First the local newspapers propagate the idea that a community is crime infected. Then property values drop, drastically, and business vultures fly into town to buy properties dirt cheap. Poor housing develops are replaced with condominiums and the displaced residents have to make it the best way they can; often having to resort to criminal behaviour that only serves to perpetuate the cycle of poverty, crime and urban renewal.
Since, the companies that buy up the properties usually are the same ones that contribute major advertising dollars to the local paper, the issue of gentrification is usually replaced with PR stories about the land grabbers planting rose gardens in what used to be basketball courts. The fate of displaced residents and businesses is never discussed.
Although many Conservatives often complain that the African American community is not doing enough to "get black folks off welfare" by pooling their resources and establishing self-help institutions, history records that efforts of black empowerment have been, often, undermined, whether it be Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Organization or the bombing of the other Black Wall Steet, Tulsa, Oklahoma.
One can only imagine the accusations of reverse racism that would come from the Right Wing if all the Black NBA players would form their own basketball league or all the African American Hip Hop artists formed their own entertainment company and made sure that the resources generated circulated throughout the black community.
Unfortunately, as of today, this fantasy world of black empowerment only exists in fictional novels like Ujamaa Khufu's book "Power to the People."
Black self determination has, also, been opposed by Liberals who pushed a false ideology of what writer Harold Cruse called "noneconomic Liberalism" on African Americans. Instead of encouraging the creation of black wealth and independent political power, they shifted the focus to the integration of lunch counters and public toilets.
To put it in more Shakespearean terms, "Foolish is the ruler who would trade his kingdom to sit on a porcelain throne with his enemy."
So what we have in Durham is a, formerly, vibrant black community that is on the verge of ,totally, losing it's blackness.
Today, Parrish Street, in the heart of the former black business district, is lined with tomb stones in the form of markers memorializing black Durham's glorious past. However, black empowerment is not something that can be placed in a glass case and displayed like a museum piece. Black development must be functional and continuously producing economic opportunities for under-served communities.
Even the remaining so called black cultural institutions are so dependent on white philanthropy that they are totally detached from the less affluent kids in the 'hood who need them the most.
Somebody has to renew the call for black social, economic and political empowerment. This is the only way that we can close the educational achievement gap, stop gang violence and cure the rest of the societal ills plaguing Durham and the rest of black America.
If not, 20 years from now when our grandchildren ask us what happened to Durham's black community, we will only be able to quote the Joni Mitchell lyric,
"They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."