The 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and the enactment of the 13th Amendment in 1865 technically freed enslaved African-Americans. This unprecedented status was difficult for Blacks and Whites. The federal government and local organizations were trying to support and integrate freed Blacks into society with education, voting rights, and economic opportunities. This period after the Civil War is known as Reconstruction. Many freed Blacks also left the South, moving North and West. Literacy rates soared among the Black population as it was no longer illegal to learn how to read (1). In South Carolina, access to voting resulted in a majority Black legislature (2). Black post-secondary (college) education emerged with the passage of the Second Morrill Act in 1890 (3).
How did White people respond to these advancements? While there were many who supported the equality of Blacks, there was a significant whitelash. Through legal action and physical violence, the newly acquired rights quickly eroded, demonstrating a pattern that appears to continue to this day. While there were notable achievements by some, the majority of black people suffered under this stymied progress (4).
FDR’s New Deal, following the 1929 Stock Market Crash, helped improve the economic situation in many ways. The Library of Congress notes that the New Deal did not end The Depression and national revitalization was the result of the World War II economy (5). Again, the increase in access for some was met with strong resistance and terrorization by others. Segregation and Jim Crow laws continued to disenfranchise Black Americans.
Black businesses have always existed in America. During the era of slavery, there were free Blacks, freed Blacks, and escaped Blacks who owned businesses. There were also enslaved Blacks who had businesses, some with the permission of their owner, some without. During Reconstruction, black businesses grew exponentially. In many areas, black businesses were necessary as segregation prevented access to goods and services.
Booker T. Washington created the National Negro Business League to develop and promote black ownership (6). Black business was part of the economic base of the Civil Rights Movement. For example, Black taxi drivers would provide transportation during bus boycotts at the same cost as public transportation (7). Black employment was also important, as the majority of the Black population were not business owners. Blacks were often denied jobs or forced into menial, low wage jobs despite ability. Further, both Black business owners and employees were verbally and physically harassed (8). In some instances, entire communities were destroyed, such as Greenwood, Tulsa’s Black Wall Street.
The double duty dollar was a term used in the 20th century regarding Black employees, with the idea that the money “simultaneously purchased a commodity and advanced the race.” In other words, whether through Black ownership or pro-Black labor practices, Black leaders recognized the necessity of investing in the black community.
1. Library of Congress: American Memory: African American Odyssey, Reconstruction and Its Aftermath
2. Library of Congress: American Memory: African American Odyssey, Reconstruction and Its Aftermath – Fruits of Reconstruction
3. United States Department of Education: Office of Civil Rights, Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Higher Education Desegregation
4. Library of Congress: American Memory: African American Odyssey, The Booker T. Washington Era
5. Library of Congress: American Memory: African American Odyssey, The Depression, The New Deal, and World War II
6. Wikipedia, African-American Businesses
7. Wikipedia, Montgomery Bus Boycott
8. The American Prospect, Black Workers Remember
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