Revitalizing the entrepreneurial spirit of blacks in Milwaukee

By ROBERT L. WOODSON SR. | Feb. 5, 2015

In a January article comparing the economic status of the black community in 52 of the nation’s  largest metropolitan areas,  policy expert Joel Kotkin ranked Atlanta and Washington, D.C., among cities with the most prosperous black populations and ranked Milwaukee dead last. Some may wonder whether there lessons to be learned from high-ranked cities that could be applied to cities at the bottom of the list.

Keeping in mind Mark Twain’s warning about “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” it can be dangerous to make assumptions on the basis of data in the absence of a larger context. This is especially true when talking about inequalities in the current atmosphere in which any inequality — racial, gender or income — sparks protest against injustice and a demand for redress.

Before we add “location inequality” to that list, we should move from histrionics to the history of the areas that are being compared.

Kotkin uses four indicators in his ranking system: homeownership, median household income, demographic changes (people moving away) and entrepreneurship/self-employment. Because the last of these can affect the other three, we might look at how the demographic histories of the black populations compared could influence today’s situation.

It is really impossible to compare the economic plight of blacks in Milwaukee to those residing in other metropolitan areas, given the divergent demographic histories of African-Americans in Midwestern cities and those in the South and North. While 100 years ago cities such as Atlanta and Washington, D.C., had large black populations, black migration to Wisconsin was slow to develop due to the type of employment needs of industries at that time. In 1910, Milwaukee’s black population was 980; by 1930, it was still under 10,000.

Until 1965, legalized racial segregation in all areas of the country compelled blacks to establish their own means of meeting their social, spiritual and economic needs. That meant the establishment of separate hotels, banks, insurance companies, funeral homes and restaurants, and a rich entrepreneurial tradition in black America.

In 1866, for example, in Baltimore, 1,000 blacks who were fired for striking against a railroad went on to establish their own railroad — the Chesapeake Marine and Dry Dock Company, which operated successfully for over 18 years. A section of Durham, N.C., known as “Black Wall Street,” was the site of more than 100 businesses that were owned and operated by blacks. It was not uncommon for such businesses to remain in a family for over 100 years.

It was only relatively recently that Milwaukee gained a substantial black population. Between 1940 and 1960, Wisconsin’s black population went from 12,158 to 74,546 — 90% of which was concentrated in Milwaukee.

Even with the relatively short period of time that a large number of blacks resided in the city, throughout 25 years of segregation, the black population in Milwaukee exhibited the same entrepreneurial spirit that thrived in other parts of the country. Milwaukee’s African-American community created one bank and a savings and loan company. The black community also had its own hotel and business associations concentrated in a neighborhood called Bronzeville. But it is unfair to compare those accomplishments with cities that experienced four generations of black entrepreneurship.

Tragically, throughout the past 50 years, the established history of self-determination and entrepreneurship in the black community has been undermined by three forces: the implementation of an urban renewal strategy that devastated prospects for thriving, cohesive black urban neighborhoods; a massive and growing welfare system that incorporates disincentives for work and marriage — the stepping stones for upward mobility; and a very vocal segment of black leadership that promulgates a victim mentality and is focused on demands on others for reparation for past injustices.

The lesson is not what the black community in one city can teach another but what black Americans today can learn from their predecessors. A key ingredient that explains the ability of the black community to strive and succeed — in spite of hardships imposed by the forces of racism in all of its manifestations — was a spirit of self-determination.

Today, there are several not-for-profit organizations in Milwaukee that continue the tradition of promoting self-reliance and self-determination as keys to success. For example, the Running Rebels community organization on the north side has been working tirelessly to engender the civic and cultural renewal that is equipping people for upward mobility. The Milwaukee Christian Center on the south side is providing training based on the values that allowed black communities in earlier times to prosper. 

For those who are concerned with the economic situation of black communities today, it would be more effective to recognize and support initiatives such as these, rather than look through the lens of comparison and disparity.

Robert L. Woodson Sr. is founder and president of the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, based in Washington, D.C. This column expresses his personal opinion.