Black business surviving a crisis

  • Seize the moment: Cecil B. Moore, a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in the United States, and later a city council member, speaks at the opening of the Opportunities Industrialisation Centre, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s (Photograph courtesy of Temple University Libraries)

    Seize the moment: Cecil B. Moore, a leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in the United States, and later a city council member, speaks at the opening of the Opportunities Industrialisation Centre, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s (Photograph courtesy of Temple University Libraries)

  • Alyssa Ribeiro, a historian at Allegheny College, is working on multiracial activism in Philadelphia from the 1960s to the 1980s

    Alyssa Ribeiro, a historian at Allegheny College, is working on multiracial activism in Philadelphia from the 1960s to the 1980s


A deadly pandemic and deadly policing have brought us to a national moment of reckoning over race. Black-business lists are circulating on social media. Major corporations are taking stances on racial injustice. All because people have taken to the streets.

But what will happen next month or next year, when pressure from protesters subsides? Campaigns to invest in black communities can learn a clear lesson from the past: lasting change requires sustained redistribution of resources, even after dramatic headlines fade.

Alone, the goodwill of companies or individuals cannot solve our deep societal inequities; we need systemic solutions for systemic racism.

White bankers and business executives handing black activists $1 million to improve their communities seems an unlikely scenario. But that is exactly what happened in Philadelphia in 1968. In a tense urban atmosphere, a sense of near-desperation led rich, powerful white men to co-operate with black activists in unprecedented ways.

Unfortunately, that impulse did not last long enough to have substantial impacts. As the glass shards and ash settled from uprisings in US cities after the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in April 1968, residents looked for ways to move forward. Philadelphia seemed to have gotten off easy: its streets were relatively quiet.

Yet fresh in local memory was the 1964 uprising along Columbia Avenue. Continuing racial tensions threatened the city’s revitalisation efforts. Even elites began to quietly acknowledge that existing efforts to address racial disparities were inadequate. Black activists, meanwhile, remained undeterred in their pressure campaigns to desegregate education, employment and housing while improving the quality of life in black neighbourhoods. They made progress despite stiff opposition and gained leverage as the threat of racial disorder loomed large in April 1968.

Cecil B. Moore, a Philadelphia leader in the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and later a city council member, seized the moment and picked up the phone. Through a mutual friend, he reached R. Stewart Rauch Jr, president of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society. Agreeing that they needed to act, the two recruited a handful of prominent white and black leaders, who reached out to others. On Good Friday, the unlikely group met in plush corporate surroundings with incomparable views of the city.

Present were movers and shakers, such as executives from the University of Pennsylvania’s Board of Trustees, Wanamaker’s department store, Acme Markets, Penn Central Railroad, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company and the Bell Telephone Company.

Prominent black figures attending included Clarence Farmer, head of the Commission on Human Relations; judges Robert N.C. Nix Jr and Leon Higginbotham; the Reverend Henry Nichols, vice-president of the Board of Education; educator Marcus Foster and Deputy Mayor Charles Bowser.

A number of self-proclaimed militant black activists also showed up, albeit reluctantly and on the condition that no social workers or government officials be present. Some including Stanley Branche and “Freedom” George Brower had been prominent in Moore’s recent campaign to desegregate Girard College.

Several Black Muslims were also there, including Minister Jeremiah X (later Shabazz) and 23-year-old Hakim Rahman, who especially impressed the white men with his leadership potential. Although women drove much of the local movement, the group was all male.

To keep Philadelphia calm, the white power brokers committed to raise $1 million, a sum equivalent to about $7.37 million today. They also pledged to find 50 job openings a week for black job seekers for the foreseeable future.

Black members of the group, known as the Black Coalition, largely had the power to determine how to spend the money. At weekly breakfast meetings with the white board members, their proposals generally got swift approval, even if it came with some eye rolls. More than 50 companies contributed to the effort, which The Philadelphia Inquirer called a “white-funded, black-operated, self-help programme”.

Some parts of the effort resonated. A job loan corporation was fairly successful. By November 1968, it had approved nearly $1 million in loans to 88 black recipients, a portion of which enabled longtime employees to purchase an appliance shop and a dress shop.

The Black Coalition concentrated its investments in youth development, bolstering school programs that lacked adequate public support. A $75,000 grant to Simon Gratz High School helped seed a revolving loan fund for students, a scholarship fund and career programmes. A $25,000 grant went to local Head Start programmes, in danger of closing, that served 5,000 children. The money helped, but it didn’t last.

The jobs promise, however, fizzled out after just two weeks. White bosses failed to identify enough dedicated openings, leaving Black Coalition staffers to try to find both opportunities and applicants.

Maintaining a coalition that cut across ideological, class and racial lines grew harder by the month. Black militants, for example, seeking to stabilise black individuals and communities, put people on the payroll or offered youths money to keep the peace. Such tactics ran head on into concerns about proper financial accounting held by both black moderates and the white funders.

Two programmes in particular sped the demise of the coalition. West Philadelphia’s Muntu School, under Hakim’s direction, offered lessons in Swahili and African cultural traditions, karate and gathering space for black groups, including many gang members. Yet police intelligence convinced some whites that it was actually teaching them “how to make Molotov cocktails and where to start riots in the city”.

North Philadelphia’s Project Pride, headed by Brower, aimed to compensate youths for neighbourhood clean-up and beautification, but administrators accused it of fraud.

Rumours about who was getting how much money created dissension among the black militants that led to a shooting outside of the Muntu School in the fall and the brief kidnapping of Project Pride members — including an undercover police officer — a few months later. Meanwhile, Branche, the Black Coalition’s executive director, suddenly resigned at the end of 1968. The combination of internal tensions, melodramatic news coverage and police interference squelched public support for the project overall and eclipsed the coalition’s successes.

Ultimately, although urban unrest temporarily upset some conventional hierarchies, in the longer run, the arrangement could not move past the uneven power dynamic at work, in which black Philadelphians were asking white Philadelphians for money.

The nascent Urban Coalition, a public-private initiative, ultimately absorbed the remnants of the Black Coalition in mid-1969. With the exception of black militant voices, many of the same people continued to be involved.

Other cities engaged in similar experiments. In Pittsburgh, white business leaders involved in the Allegheny Conference on Community Development renewed their commitment to focusing on the “human aspects of the urban crisis” and asked colleagues to pledge that 10 per cent of new hires would be black. In Boston, the founder of CVS led the Fund for Urban Negro Development in giving the United Front money with “no strings attached”.

These efforts were not only short-lived, but their scale also paled in comparison to the degree of the problems they were hoping to address. And they were undoubtedly a product of white businessmen’s self-interest: an investment in “riot insurance”. But they were on to something: the need to address enduring wealth inequality to address racial injustice.

The racial wealth gap today is no better now than it was in 1968. Conscious consumerism and social investment by corporations can help some, but they are not nearly enough. As recent experience with the Paycheck Protection Programme shows, change requires directing existing aid where it is needed most.

Yet, lasting change won’t come unless we rethink how wealth is distributed more broadly, starting with government policies. Decisions that come from corporate boardrooms, even with input from usually marginalised groups, are too limited and ephemeral.

Alyssa Ribeiro, a historian at Allegheny College, is working on multiracial activism in Philadelphia from the 1960s to the 1980s

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Published Jul 15, 2020 at 8:00 am (Updated Jul 15, 2020 at 11:52 am)

Black business surviving a crisis

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