Rewind: Black achievement in the shadow of slavery

Posted: August 8, 2008 in Remember

This is a post I did back in May of ’06.
While many in the black community are well familiar with the downfall of what was considered “The Black Wall Street” of its time (Tulsa, Oklahoma), not may of us are familiar with the many successes of the black community right on the heels of the slave era here in the US. Although these pioneers still had to face racism, I think that once you read the excerpts below you will have to agree that their generation possessed something that we so desperately need today in our community.


In 1860, the census reports for a dozen western states and territories showed the 50 percent school attendance for black women that equaled that of white women. The 26 percent illiteracy rate for African-American women on the frontier was much lower than that for white frontier women. Women of color in the wilderness consistently distinguished themselves through their dedication to self-improvement and zeal for education.”

“In a 1790 Census, African-American men and women constituted 18 percent of California’s population. Los Angeles was founded in 1781 by forty-four people, twenty-six of them of African descent. Maria Rita Valdez, born to one of these African families in Los Angeles, owned what is now Beverly Hills.”

“In Sacramento, in 1859, African-American parents began their own school for thirty to thirty-five pupils, mostly girls, and hired a white teacher. Within a year the city Board of Education awarded three of its female pupils silver achievement medals.”

“Unlike white pioneers, most former slave women (and men) rejected farm work for town jobs. They associated rural life with the pain and social isolation of southern plantations and slavery. (During that time, European peasant immigrants, for similar reasons, overwhelmingly chose urban life over rural life in America. They associated farm work with the oppressive conditions they had fled in Europe.)

For a white woman, a job on the frontier usually served as a bridge between arrival time and marriage. For a woman of color, married or unmarried, a paying job was a necessity. Black women of the West were five times as likely to be employed as white women and twice as likely to be employed as Asian or Native American women.

“In 1900, as the African-American population of Colorado grew, urban women of color built a host of societies to fortify them in their daily struggles against bigotry. In Denver the formed the Colored Ladies’ Legal Rights Association, the Colored Women’s Republican Club, and the Women’s League. In 1901, Augustavia Youn, then sixteen, formed the Pond Lily Art and Literary Club to challenge the local newspapers’ negative images of women of color.

By the early twentieth century, Colorado women had formed clubs for lovers of art, books, and other literary maters. In 1916, four clubs united to establish a day nursery that was still operating in 1992.

These clubs welcomed working and middle-class women. Members generally were married, had children, and most were high school graduates. Many were employed outside their homes as teachers, seamstresses, maids, and musicians. Club meetings were held on weekdays in an effort to encourage attendance by people who as laundresses and domestics worked on Saturdays.”

On the founding of Dearfield, Colorado by black homesteaders and how they valued education:

Residents were proud of their schools and teachers. They turned out in large numbers to hear and encourage their children’s recitations. To finance education, they collected money from neighbors and sometimes from white employers.”

Langston City, Oklahoma

“By 1892, Langston City had six hundred people from twenty different states. The Herald boasted that Langston City was a town of “homes, churches, and schools, where you can raise your family in good and respectable society.” Three white businessmen and their families were among the residents.

The Herald emphasized middle-class values and Victorian chivalry toward women. Men were sternly told to give their church seats to women. The Herald asked, “How do you expect other races to respect our ladies when you fail to do so yourselves?” The town founders outlawed prostitution and gambling and serious crimes were unknown within its borders.”

“From the beginning, Lanstonians, particularly its women, embraced education with a passion. the nearby Catholic Holy Name College, which also had whites and Indians in its first-grade to high school-grad classes, began to accept African-Americans, and in a few years they constituted a majority of the student body.

In 1892, town officials began a tax-supported public school with classes up to the eight grade. As students graduated, a new high school was begun, its governing board announcing acceptance of students “regardless of race, color or number.” In 1892, some of Langston City’s founders and their wives decided to make their town the educational center of black Oklahoma.

The educational efforts of the town’s early women and men led to spectacular victories. By 1900, Langston City boasted a literacy rate among the highest of any frontier community in the United States: 72 percent of its citizens could read and 70 percent could write. For Langston City’s pioneer women between the ages of fifteen and forty-five, the figures were even higher–96 percent could read and 95 percent could write.”

All the above excerpts were taken from the book “Black Women of the Old West” by William Loren Katz.

The black community of gold rush California became one of the most culturally advanced and probably the richest black community in the country. Its wealth was placed at more than two millions of dollars in assets, with more than half of this located in San Francisco.”

Excerpt taken from the book “The Black West” by William Loren Katz.


>>>How could they achieve so much with so little while living on the heels of a post-slavery era and under a hostile government?<<<

  1. Wizz says:

    I think you are mostly right… I think that just shows that if we were allowed to succeed we could. But the fact of the matter is that most of the time we were not allowed to. Black Wallstreet and anything like it were burned to the ground.. So it has been bread into us over generations that we are not allowed to succeed…. And now that we ARE allowed to it is taking a while to root that mindset out.. That’s my 2 cents.

  2. Duane says:

    So it has been bread into us over generations that we are not allowed to succeed

    Thinking that we were not “allowed” to succeed was never our problem. Thinking that had the ability to succeed was. Why? Because we focus too much on the setbacks.

    Generally speaking, we credit slavery way too much for many of the ills that we deal with today. If today’s hurdles can be directly linked to slavery, what then happened to the legacy of our successes? That is the question many folks don’t want to answer because its way too easy to tie everything to slavery.

    99% of the time folks tend to focus on what White folks took from us in Tulsa while ignoring the greatest part of the story–how Black folks were able to achieve so much with NO special programs or assistance from the government. (High school drop-out rates? Virtually non-existent. Black on Black crime? Not an issue. Wide spread poverty? Nope. Spread of sexually-transmitted diseases? Not that I know of). Mind you, a government that still backed Jim Crow laws. I contend that as long as we continue to focus on the failures and setbacks, we will never fully grasp onto the fact that we can succeed with very little (if any) intervention from the government.

  3. Wizz says:

    If today’s hurdles can be directly linked to slavery, what then happened to the legacy of our successes?

    They went up in flames time and time again until they were forgotten. And here we are now.

  4. Duane says:

    They went up in flames time and time again until they were forgotten.

    Including commitment to family and community?

  5. Wizz says:

    Including commitment to family and community?

    No.. You have a point there. And I don’t want to be the one coming up with excuses. But some would say that economic, emotional, and physical suppression would lead to families and communities breaking up. I think there is some truth to that but I’m not totally buying it. Especially in current times. At some point we are just making excuses.

  6. avery says:

    the beautiful thing about Black Wall Street is that people of EITHER ideology should be talking about it, because it should modify what anybody has to say. Black Wall Street is the “answer” (if there actually is such a thing) to the (falsely dichotomous) question of Du Bois or Washington. It’s both, and Black Wall Street illustrates exactly what and why. Success requires a “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” approach, but that must be undergirded and protected by political power. Politics alone ain’t gon’ get it done, and “work ethic” alone won’t do it either.

  7. Wil says:

    There are no legitimate excuse for not succeeding today, there are plenty of laws to protect against racism. My ancestors owned a farm in Missouri in 1850 which was burned to the ground by white marauders. The family sold the land, moved to nearby Kansas City, bought modest houses and began working and saving. Today there is a fair amount of success in the family, including elected officials, many university grads, lawyers, etc..all in the face of unrelenting racism. . Education, hard work, and good values lead to success, it is as simple as that.

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