race and space

Punishing Resilience

The United States has a very ambivalent history — as all nations do — of exhilarating moments and times of shame. The Reconstruction Era is confusingly named since the nation was recovering from a civil war that created a “new” class of emancipated people, but was unwilling to reconstruct the national perspective to include the population. Broke, with no property, and skills that few were willing to pay for, freed Black people were given a myriad of bad opportunities that they were forced to accept lest they be imprisoned on the slightest of charges and manipulated back into slavery. Within this frustration, there were beacons of hope, and such a beacon was Wilmington, Delaware.

When some people argue that segregation was better for all the races, they look to the sparse examples of racial triumph, such as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma or the formerly Black community of Clarksville in Austin, Texas. In these types of areas, there were Black-owned businesses and the Black community maintained a relatively tolerable existence. Wilmington was one city where there were Black municipal leaders, which was no small feat considering the challenges of voting and social acclimation of Black people as slaves. For a while, these areas managed to exist and thrive, which of course enraged those who were unwilling to accept anyone outside the dominant narrative.

Finally, when terrorist groups could bear it no longer, they terrorized communities of Black success and created havoc among those who supported such areas. Wilmington was among the municipal victims unable to make it to the twentieth century, while Black Wall Street fell before Wall Street in 1921, and rezoning toppled Clarksville in 1928. Violence indicated that freed Black people were required to live down to stereotypes even at the expense of safe neighborhoods and municipal economies. One might ask whether the destruction of such places sowed the seeds of the stock market crash in 1929, as inequities tend to eventually lead to financial collapse.

For decades, not only did people not know about the injustice that toppled once-flourishing communities, there was little interest in retelling those stories in favor of the dominant narrative. None of the information was readily available in municipal archives and government entities were tepid about such research. Only in more recent years have dedicated historians worked to illuminate these parts of American history, such as the Texas Freedom Colonies Project and Smithsonian National Museum for African American History and Culture. North Carolina joins these efforts with new reports, new plaques, and even newspapers issuing apologies for their parts in allowing the destruction of a community based on the resilience of freed slaves.

To allow real growth, real truths must be shared about the history of cities. In the past, neighborhoods were allowed to be destroyed if residents were not members of the dominant narrative. Displacement is finally being acknowledged, and some who have benefited from that practice are beginning to pay the price. History is intricate, and will only become more honest once there is no longer a socially accepted dominant narrative.


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