The notion that blacks have ever succeeded on a large scale in business is a “social myth,” declared Howard University sociologist E. Franklin Frazier almost 40 years ago. In Black Bourgeoisie, the classic study of the black middle class, Frazier argues that at no time have American blacks ever created a thriving business community. Claims to the contrary, writes Frazier, constitute a call to racial separatism spread by unscrupulous black businessmen in the hope “that they will have the monopoly of the Negro market.”

Frazier’s analysis, controversial when it first appeared, has come to be accepted by many historians as at least approximately true. As a consequence, the history of black success in America often is presented as the success of isolated individuals, of specially gifted men and women who rose to achievement alone despite tremendous obstacles. But such a history is incomplete. For nearly a century, a community of successful black businessmen, clergy, and educators flourished in America. This black aristocracy built a nearly self-contained society outside the white world and with limited white assistance. And this group existed in the center of E. Franklin Frazier’s hometown, Washington, D.C.

This summer the New York Times ran a devastating three-part series on the city of Washington that confirmed what those who live there already know: the District, particularly in its predominantly black areas, “is falling apart.” Dramatic though it is, this decline is a relatively recent phenomenon. From the turn of the century until the race riots of 1968, Washington contained the largest black professional community in the United States. By 1920 a 40-block portion of the city, an area now known as the Shaw neighborhood, boasted more than 300 black-owned businesses, including the Ford, Howard, and Dabney movie theaters, a large hotel, three black-owned banks (one, the Industrial Savings Bank, with nearly $500,000 on deposit), black newspapers and pharmacies, a number of successful undertaking businesses, cabarets, billiard clubs, and Ware’s, a black-owned and -managed department store. The Murray Palace Casino, located on U Street, was one of the city’s first concrete-reinforced buildings and could accommodate 1,800 people. The neighborhood rivaled Harlem as a center of American black enterprise and culture. “You had to wear a tie to walk down U Street,” recalls one elderly resident.

Black Washingtonians were proud of what they had created. In 1921 the Washington Bee, the city’s largest black paper, editorialized that the growth of black business in Washington, “more than anything else, marks real and prominent racial progress.” The thriving business district was a symbol of what blacks could achieve. As one longtime resident of the area put it in 1988, “If you were on U Street, you didn’t need to go anywhere else. It was all right there for you. Blacks had a society put together on this street.”

Today, Shaw resembles much of the rest of black Washington: a crumbling inner-city neighborhood of boarded-up buildings, pitted streets, and vagrants. Nearly all its black-owned businesses have gone. The last of Shaw’s major black enterprises—McGuire’s Funeral Home, founded in 1912 and among the most famous black mortuaries in the country—relocated near the Maryland border almost 20 years ago.

Today, the city’s black aristocracy, like the thriving communities it created, exists mostly in memories. In its place are Washington’s new black leaders: the civil rights class that took power in the District nearly 30 years ago. As it turned out, the two groups could not coexist in Washington. In the process of gaining political power, Washington’s black politicians, intentionally or not, drove from the city the very group they needed to govern effectively. The trend is not unique to Washington; in the past 30 years, middle-class black families have fled cities all over America. But nowhere has a black elite fallen so fast from such heights—and with such terrible consequences—as in the District of Columbia.

Booker T. Washington, speaking to a gathering of the National Negro Business League in 1900, claimed that wherever he had seen “a black man who was succeeding in business, who was a taxpayer, and who possessed intelligence and high character, that individual was treated with the highest respect by the members of the white race.” Washington’s statement betrays a strong, almost touching, faith in the ability of business to better the lives of black Americans. In the District of Columbia such faith was not misplaced. It was economic success, more than anything else, that earned the city’s black aristocracy its power and respect from whites.

At the time Booker Washington spoke, the District contained the largest black middle class in the country. Thousands of manumitted and freeborn blacks had moved to the city decades before the Civil War, allowing a sizable black professional class to evolve well before emancipation. As early as 1827, black carpenters, plasterers, tanners, and pump makers had opened shops in the city. Surveys from the 1840s reveal a large number of free black tradesmen in the city, mostly barbers, blacksmiths, and shoemakers. The steadiest employer of black people in this period, though, was the federal government, where blacks commonly worked as messengers and cooks.

During and immediately after Reconstruction, the population of the city expanded dramatically. The many freed slaves who moved to Washington during these years—more than 50,000 between 1870 and 1900—competed with demobilized Union soldiers for federal employment. Perhaps inevitably, blacks began to be excluded from government jobs. As a result, black Washingtonians were forced, in the words of one historian, “to work out schemes for solving their problems another way.” That other way was independent business.

Washington’s black business boom began in the late 1880s. By the end of the decade, black Washingtonians owned two steamboat companies, a number of grocery stores, and several heating-fuel businesses. The black-owned Adams Oil and Gas Development Company invested in Oklahoma’s oil fields. Within ten years the city contained a black-owned bank, Capital Savings; two black-owned insurance companies, Douglas Life and the National Benefit Company; and at least 11 black employment agencies.

By 1892 the number of black businesses was large enough to support the Union League, an association for “colored mechanics, business and professional men and women,” whose self-described aim was “to better our moral and material status and make the conditions of success in the industrial and professional pursuits more easy.” As a pamphlet from the organization, aimed at the city’s growing black middle class, promised: “If you are employed in a store and aspire to be a clerk or salesman where you may learn the art of business from actual experience, we can help you. If you want to find such employment, we can help you.”

And help it did. Each year the Union League printed a directory of black-owned businesses that those looking for work or a place to shop might consult. “There is no better index to the character and development of a people than the number and nature of organizations they sustain,” declared the directory’s editor. The booklet soon ran to more than 100 pages. Other leaders encouraged blacks to patronize black businesses. “If the colored people are to have their quota in the skilled trades, in business and in professions,” editorialized one black newspaper in 1894, “colored people must have more confidence in the ability of men and women of their own race to fill these positions than they have yet shown.”

Many of these businesses were run by self-made entrepreneurs like Daniel Freeman, who had come to the city in 1881 from Virginia, penniless and looking for work. By 1901, at the age of 33, Freeman, a successful portrait artist, owned a bicycle shop, a framing business, and a photography studio on 14th Street downtown. He also was a Mason, president of the Social Temperance League, and, according to contemporary accounts, the ninth-best rifle shot in the country. At the turn of the century and for decades after, Washington was home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Daniel Freemans.

By 1894 more than 3,000 black families owned their own homes in the District. The total value of assets owned by black Washingtonians that year was estimated to be about $17 million. Some members of the city’s black upper classes maintained country houses in Virginia, employed servants, and held debutante balls for their daughters. Others sent their children to predominantly white boarding schools and colleges in New England. According to a black journalist writing at the time, the District contained “the most cultured, most advanced and intelligent as well as the wealthiest members of the colored race.” Many whites seemed to agree. At least six black families were included in Washington’s first Social Register, published in 1888. Eleven years later, in 1899, students at Washington’s one black high school scored higher than their white counterparts on citywide academic achievement tests.

How did the District’s black entrepreneurs succeed? Part of the answer, of course, is that segregation, particularly a strictly enforced residential segregation, gave African-American businessmen something of a monopoly in black neighborhoods. But there are other reasons, among them the extraordinary educational opportunities then available to black Washingtonians. Just as affluent whites now flee to the suburbs in search of better schools for their children, many ambitious Southern blacks came to the capital after the Civil War, drawn by the promise of a superior education. Good schools helped create a solid bourgeoisie, which in turn supported a thriving business community. And few schools in Washington—black or white—were better than Dunbar High School and Howard University.

Founded in 1870, Dunbar High was the country’s first black secondary school, and for almost 100 years the best. Dunbar was the Groton of black Washington, educating the sons and daughters of the black aristocracy to rule its portion of the segregated city. Among Dunbar’s graduates were an astonishing number of black pioneers—including Edward Brooke, the first black senator since Reconstruction; Benjamin O. Davis, the first black general; and the noted blood-plasma researcher, Dr. Charles Drew—as well as nearly all of Washington’s local black leadership. By 1964, for instance, almost every predominantly black public school in the city’s generally well-regarded school system was run by a Dunbar alumnus—no fewer than 32 principals and superintendents.

Working with a tiny budget and under the limits of segregation, Dunbar sent its graduates to the best colleges in America. From 1918 to 1923, for example, 15 students went on to graduate from Ivy League schools. In 1949 Dunbar sent one graduate each to Colby, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Smith, and Yale. A total of five went to Bates and NYU. One hundred fifteen went to Howard University. Of the 310 students who graduated from Dunbar that year, 267 went to college, five joined the military, and only 37 went  immediately to work.

Howard University’s history is almost as impressive. Chartered by Congress in 1879 and named after the Civil War general and Freedmen’s Bureau Commissioner O. O. Howard, the university boasted the first black medical, dental, and law schools in America. A black architect, Albert Cassell, designed many of its buildings. It was also the first black university to offer a liberal arts curriculum. In addition to drawing countless talented and ambitious blacks to the city, Howard University helped shape the values of its many graduates who remained in Washington.

Howard’s strict moral code mirrored and reinforced that of the black middle class it served: well into this century, a student could be expelled from the school for drinking alcohol of any kind or for smoking cigarettes. For female Howard students the restrictions were even more stringent. Unmarried women, according to school regulations, were “not to take walks, ride in any vehicles, correspond, or engage in any outdoor games with the opposite sex without approval.”

Like Dunbar, Howard produced many early black leaders, including the first black Rhodes scholar, Alain Locke. Today, sadly, both schools are parodies of their former greatness. With an exponentially larger budget and without the restrictions of segregation, Dunbar now sends a far smaller percentage of its graduates to college than it did 60 years ago. The reasons for Dunbar’s deterioration are complex, and perhaps not so different from the factors that caused public schools in dozens of other American cities to decline during the same period: Byzantine desegregation agreements, the growth of teachers’ unions, generally lower academic standards. But it is also clear that Dunbar could not remain an elite school without the support of the families that made it great in the first place—and as the traditional black professional class left the city, no one remained to keep Dunbar what it once had been.

For generations, however, schools like Dunbar and Howard changed the composition of black Washington. By the end of the Second World War, the District contained a higher proportion of black college graduates than any other place in America, more than twice that of most cities. A survey conducted in 1950 found 92 black dentists, 181 black lawyers, and 211 black physicians practicing in Washington. When W. E. B. Du Bois described the Talented Tenth—the 10 percent of accomplished blacks who would lead their race to equality—he drew his inspiration from Washington’s black aristocracy.

Washington’s black society was as stratified as any in white America. Blacks in the city did not consider themselves a monolithic body; indeed, members of the black middle class—known, with no insult intended, as “strivers”—were more likely to socialize with whites than with black laborers. The Syphax family, for instance, was once among the most prominent families, black or white, in the District. For decades members of the clan ran schools, churches, and businesses in Washington. The family’s matriarch, Maria Carter Syphax, grew up a slave in Arlington, Virginia, the illegitimate daughter of George Washington Parke Custis and his housekeeper. In 1826 Custis—a wealthy landowner who was Martha Washington’s grandson—admitted paternity and freed Maria. In the 1850s Maria’s son, William, moved to the District. In the years before his death in 1891, William Syphax became both the chief messenger at the Interior Department and the first head of the city’s black school system. In 1878 even the white-owned Washington Post, in describing his work for the federal government, praised Syphax for his “magnificent” mind and “coolness of intellect.” Similar was the Grimke family, whose patriarchs, brothers Francis and Archibald, graduated at the turn of the century from Princeton Theological Seminary and Harvard Law School, respectively.

The social life of the city’s black aristocrats revolved around voluntary organizations rather than places of employment. The city teemed with black social groups. The Knights of Pythias, Love & Charity, the Sons and Daughters of Moses—all had large chapters in the District. At the turn of the century, Washington supported 11 black Masonic lodges and 24 black Odd Fellows halls, with a combined membership of almost 4,000 members. The District also had a large number of black fraternities and sororities (nearly every black fraternity and sorority in America was founded in Washington), which acted as social service agencies, supporting, for instance, the Ionia Whipper Home for unwed mothers.

Founded and maintained on its strength in business and education, Washington’s black aristocracy did not at any time wield—or, apparently, seek—political power. Yet even before the abolition of slavery, the city’s black professionals did agitate for civil rights. In 1850, William Syphax founded the Civil and Statistical Association, which sought to secure legal rights for blacks. And until his death in 1891, Syphax lobbied Congress (frequently with some success) for equal funding for the city’s black schools. In the 1890s the black Union League printed an annual list of “institutions that make no discrimination on account of race.” (The cited institutions included G. H. Cardozo, a pharmacist on K Street, as well as a number of lawyers.)

No one worked harder to defeat segregation than Mary Church Terrell, who from the turn of the century until her death in 1954 was the grande dame of Washington’s black society. Born to slaves in Memphis in 1863, Terrell went on to graduate from Oberlin College, learn four languages, and teach at Dunbar High. In 1891 she married Robert Terrell, a municipal court judge. For the next 60 years Terrell spent much of her considerable energy working to defeat segregation. In the 1890s she founded the Colored Women’s League of Washington. In 1909 she was among the charter members of the NAACP. In the 1950s, as head of the Coordinating Committee for the Enforcement of D.C. Anti-Discrimination Laws, Terrell picketed the White House and testified before the Supreme Court to end segregation in city restaurants.

Like most of Washington’s black aristocracy, however, Terrell was not a racial separatist: arrested in Delaware in 1920 for violating Jim Crow laws, she was released from jail by the intercession of one of her many white friends, the Republican senator Coleman Du Pont. (Nor did Washington’s black aristocrats ever become separatists: as late as 1968, the Omega Psi Phi fraternity—one of the country’s oldest and most prestigious black fraternities, founded in Washington in 1911—held a banquet at Howard University whose theme was “Racial Togetherness, Not Separation: The Goal of American Democracy.”) Like other black aristocrats, Terrell actively resisted segregation. And she had much to resist. Until well into the 1940s, Washington was a segregated city. In 1922 at the opening of the Lincoln Memorial (of all places), black dignitaries were forced to sit in segregated stands. Most downtown restaurants would not serve blacks until the 1950s.

Given this history of activism, it is ironic that racial integration—in the form in which it ultimately emerged—almost certainly hastened the end of the city’s black aristocracy, leaving it broken, scattered, and irrelevant to city politics. To all involved, it was an unexpected development.

Midway through a New York magazine article last year on the success of Korean immigrants in New York, reporter Jeffrey Goldberg made a prediction. “As New York’s Korean community becomes savvier about American life,” he wrote, “it may find that there is much to gain in following the African-American model of exerting influence through electoral politics.”

Goldberg’s comment appeared in the middle of a paragraph, almost as an aside, but his point was unmistakable: although the Korean community in New York has done remarkably well over the past 30 years—building an empire of small businesses, sending its sons and daughters to Harvard and Yale—real success still eludes it. For a minority group, Goldberg implies, the hallmark of accomplishment is not thriving shops or educated children but the sight of its own members in office.

Goldberg isn’t the first to draw a connection between an ethnic group’s political power and its full membership in the American community. For many it has become almost axiomatic that a racial minority’s success in American life largely depends upon its success at the ballot box. Groups that do not build and flex political muscle, according to this widespread view, can expect to fall behind—indeed, will have their interests trampled upon by the majority. Nowhere is this belief stronger than in black America.

But is it true? Have political successes translated into social and economic successes for black Americans? In the words of Manning Marable, head of the African-American studies department at Columbia University, “Are black people being empowered through the election of black people?”

In Washington at least, they are not. On the contrary, it was faith in the saving power of politics that helped to marginalize and ultimately destroy Washington’s black aristocracy.

For almost 25 years, John L. McMillan, segregationist congressman from South Carolina and chairman of the House District Committee, blocked home rule efforts in Washington. Washington remained a federal city, governed by congressional fiat and lacking an autonomous city government, much less one open to blacks. Then, without warning in 1972, McMillan lost in his state’s Democratic primary. By the next year the District had its own city government. Immediately blacks, who were then about 70 percent of the population, assumed nearly total political control of the District.

But the new political leaders were a very different group from the members of the socially prominent families with deep ties to the District who had led the city’s black community throughout segregation. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the so-called “colored 400” seemed to drop from view, increasingly marginalized in their own city. Washington’s newly elected black leaders, by and large, were newcomers from the rural South, drawn to the city by the civil rights movement. Marion Barry, for instance, came to Washington from Memphis as a Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee activist. Nearly every one of his closest advisors arrived in similar fashion.

More than geography separated the new leadership from the old. Washington’s old black aristocracy had a tangible stake in the stability and economic health of the city. The District’s new elites—who had moved to the city expressly to challenge its existing order—did not. The city’s civil rights class did not intend to grow rich from a thriving economy but from the growth of government. Nor did they draw their power from the support of Washington’s black professionals but from the city’s poor and disaffected masses. If Washington’s old elite had a vested interest in preserving a prosperous private sector, the new black leaders had reason to ignore it, even to tear it down with policies hostile to small enterprise when it proved an impediment to their interests. A flourishing black business community, after all, wasn’t so easy for the new black politics of victimhood and entitlement to explain away. Over time a perverse relationship developed: as businesses atrophied and the District sank deeper into poverty and chaos, city government ballooned and local politicians became stronger.

Meanwhile, the most prosperous segment of black Washington voted with its feet. Over the decade that followed the 1968 riots, black families began leaving the city for the suburbs at the rate of about 1 percent of the population a year. Since 1970, Washington has lost fully a quarter of its population—186,000 people—most of them middle-class families, and many of them black. Though it had worked for years to increase black political power, Washington’s traditional black leadership was caught unprepared when that power actually arrived. Few of its members ran for office; even fewer were elected. Those aristocrats left in positions of influence—most of whom had both light skin and, like their ancestors, profoundly integrationist views—seemed like museum pieces in a city whose local politics were increasingly defined by black nationalism. The rest, families whose names had been famous in black Washington for decades, seemed to vanish, drifting over the border into suburban Maryland and anonymity. The age of Washington’s black aristocrats was over—and nobody seemed to notice, much less keep track of, its scattered and aging members.

With the old elite gone or powerless, no force remained to keep the excesses of the civil rights class in check. Political leaders stopped identifying with bourgeois values and began pandering in earnest to the underclass. In 1992, to curry favor with felons and their families, the City Council passed a law prohibiting judges from posting bond higher than suspects can pay. In his 1994 campaign for mayor, Marion Barry openly courted convicted, even incarcerated, criminals, making convicts a significant constituency in Washington.

Before long, a very different definition of black achievement developed in the District. While the black aristocracy had followed the traditional routes to success—education, small business, or skilled labor—the new elites rode to power on the politics of protest. In Washington under the civil rights class, success was measured by the amount a politician might swindle, extort, or simply take from the federal government—for the city, of course. The new local heroes—when they weren’t crack dealers—were those leaders bold enough to heap blame on Congress for all the District’s ills and walk away with an appropriation.

Now, after four Marion Barry administrations, black political empowerment in the District is looking distinctly unempowering. “For most of my political life,” observed city councilman John Ray, “we’ve had a black mayor, a predominantly black city council, a black police chief, a black superintendent—and a black person has headed nearly every department in the city. And what have we accomplished in terms of lifting people? What we’ve done is driven the city down.”

If anything, Ray’s assessment understates the city’s present state of decay. The civil rights establishment that took power in the 1970s has done more to cripple black Washington than a century of segregation. The city’s vital statistics are as well known as they are depressing: roughly half of Washington’s children live below the poverty line, three-quarters of births in the city are illegitimate, about one in 20 Washington teenagers has the HIV virus, and the number of murders and robberies in the District has risen at nearly the rate that local SAT scores have fallen. And the city’s black leadership, once nationally respected by people of every race, has become a symbol of corruption and almost comic incompetence.

The city’s economy is in equally bad shape. About the only growing industry in Washington is local government, which has become the single largest employer of Washington residents, with nearly one in five District workers on the city’s payroll. Despite its ample supply of labor, however, D.C. government provides among the poorest and most inefficient services of any municipality in America. Because of overstaffing at District libraries, to name but one of countless examples, it costs nearly $10 in labor (as compared with about $1.15 in surrounding cities) to circulate a single book. City departments that aren’t grotesquely bloated are simply corrupt.

As for Washington’s long-vanished black aristocracy, only a few so much as remember that it ever existed. But those who do remember that aristocracy mourn its disappearance for many reasons: for the schools and churches it maintained, for the once-thriving businesses it created. Perhaps most of all, however, the city’s black aristocrats should be missed for their snobbishness. As E. Franklin Frazier put it in the 1950s, “The old upper class in the Negro community erected an impenetrable barrier between themselves and Negroes who represented the ‘sporting’ and criminal world.” The District’s black upper class was never afraid to draw distinctions between black people—between the criminal and the honest man, the idle and the hardworking, between members of the black aristocracy and those who, through industry and upright behavior, might someday be. Such distinctions could be harsh. But they were vital to the health of Washington’s black community, as in any other community. Just how vital is clear perhaps only in retrospect.


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