Mirage and Reality: Economic Conditions in Black Little Rock in the 1920s

Article excerpt

THE 1920s WITNESSED A DRAMATIC INCREASE in black businesses throughout the nation. The migration of rural blacks to northern and southern cities, combined with a new emphasis on "race pride" and selfhelp, led to this impressive rise in the numbers and types of businesses operated by African Americans. Timothy Bates, a scholar of black enterprise, calls the 1920s the "golden years for urban black business." Others, most notably E. Franklin Frazier, have labeled the story of black business success a "myth," however. Frazier contends that the growth of black business masked the poor condition of most African Americans in a segregated economy and that the black bourgeoisie employed the myth of success to sustain their own business interests and to assuage their feelings of inferiority to the white middle class.1

Unfortunately, the debate's focus on the national scene and the number of businesses in operation in the U.S. as a whole may obscure the realities of daily life for blacks in a particular location. Little Rock, Arkansas, might offer, therefore, a valuable test case. While the prominence of certain African-American enterprises and businessmen created the appearance of increasing prosperity among Little Rock's African Americans during the 1920s, a close examination suggests that there was not a substantial increase in the number of black-owned businesses over the course of the decade and that the economic condition of the typical black citizen remained quite bleak. For most of Little Rock's African-American community, there was little that was golden in the 1920s.

Well before the 1920s, Little Rock's African-American leaders trumpeted the achievements of the businessmen and professionals in their community. In 1898, African-American physician D. B. Gaines wrote Racial Possibilities as Indicated by the Negroes of Arkansas, which emphasized the opportunities blacks enjoyed for success in Little Rock. He profiled the city's leading businessmen, ministers, educators, "men of means," lawyers, and doctors, along with its churches and colleges. He also included a "colored business directory" and "colored church directory." In Little Rock and Argenta (now known as North Little Rock), he found twenty-nine barbers, ten blacksmiths, fifteen shoe repairmen, twenty-six grocers, six lawyers, five doctors, a dentist, a druggist, and an undertaker, along with assorted black-owned restaurants, hotels, newspapers, wood and coal yards, tailors, confectioners, and jewelers. These businesses not only catered to the black community, Gaines said, but enjoyed "a very extensive trade from the white citizens." Gaines paid particular attention to J. W. Walker, whose grocery store enjoyed the "liberal patronage of many of the best white citizens," and J. H. Smith, a dentist with a "large and lucrative practice among the wealthy white class."2

Writing almost a decade after Gaines, E. M. Woods, in his 1907 Blue Book of Little Rock and Argenta, Arkansas, also praised what he considered to be Little Rock's vibrant African-American business community. Woods profiled ninety-eight of the "principal, energetic, talented or thrifty Negroes" in Little Rock and Argenta. Woods also counted six newspapers, four colleges, thirty-seven churches, and a bank in greater Little Rock's black community.3

Little Rock's African-American businessmen even attracted national attention. Booker T. Washington dedicated a chapter of his 1907 The Negro in Business to the success stories of Little Rock. He reserved highest praise for his friends M. W. Gibbs, president of Capital City Savings Bank, and the Hon. John E. Bush, founder of the Mosaic Templars of America, a fraternal benevolent organization that provided burial insurance for its 20,000 members across the nation. Bush and Gibbs had relied on more than simple business acumen. Both used connections to leaders in the Republican party to further their careers. Bush, a former railway postal clerk, served as receiver at the U. …