A History of Black Excellence: The Mad King and Black Queen Who Built Black Wall Street (No, Not That One)

Illustration for article titled A History of Black Excellence: The Mad King and Black Queen Who Built Black Wall Street (No, Not That One)
Photo: Steve Helber (AP)

When an angry white mob bombed, lynched, shot and slaughtered the Black residents in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, Okla., on May 31, 1921, they did not destroy Black Wall Street.

They destroyed one of the Black Wall Streets.

In fact, before the tragic events in Greenwood, if the producers of Family Feud had asked 100 African Americans where “Black Wall Street” was located, Greenwood might have received the fewest number of votes. In the first two decades of the twentieth century, there were more populous sections of major cities that were more widely known as “the Black Wall Street.” To be fair, white people write most of the history and the actions of a lynch mob can sometimes overshadow nuance.

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The stories about these oases of Black economic independence are often overlooked. For instance, the Royal Ice Cream protest, which became famous as the first sit-in, didn’t happen in a white neighborhood. It happened when a white-owned business moved into a financially independent, majority-Black neighborhood and refused to serve Black customers. The Hayti section of Durham, N.C., was probably the first place known as Black Wall Street and likely lasted the longest.

But the unquestionable leader in the clubhouse on Black Wall Street characters are Maggie L. Walker and John Mitchell Jr., the king and queen of Jackson Ward in Richmond, Va.


By 1870, so many newly freed slaves had moved to the Jackson Ward area on the northern edge of Richmond’s downtown district, that it became the Black area of town. Soon, so many businesses emerged in the predominantly Black community that it was called the “birthplace of Black capitalism.”

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John Mitchell Jr. wasn’t rich but he had a bully pulpit. Enslaved in Richmond, Va., for the first two years of his life, he learned to read and was named editor of the Richmond Planet by the age of 21. He had won a bunch of oratory contests and had an uncanny ability to draw maps by hand, securing him an apprenticeship at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Of course, he had some help. Someone noticed his talent and wrote him a very nice letter of recommendation but you probably don’t know him:

Some dude named Frederick Douglass.

After Mitchell learned the printing game, he settled down in the Jackson Ward area of town and became the King of Jackson Ward. His status as Jackson Ward’s most prominent resident may have come from the fact that he sang its praises in his newspaper, helping the area become known as the “Harlem of the South.” Mitchell’s work as a teacher made him more popular. But the gregarious editor was known for another reason:

Johnny didn’t take no shit.

Mitchell made his newspaper one of the most respected in the country by traveling around the state reporting on lynchings. But he didn’t just write about racehe wrote about white people to their faces. When a Black Jackson Ward resident died during an encounter with a Richmond police officer, Mitchell publicly called the officer a murderer and was indicted for slandering the officer. Mitchell went to court and accused the officer again, insisting that he had solid reports that the victim had been beaten to death by the officer. The court asked Mitchell to prove it but refused to let him inspect the body. Unfazed, Mitchell forced his way into the University of Virginia to inspect the body himself.

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Mitchell’s charges were dropped.

When racists sent a noose to Mitchell’s house for covering a lynching, informing him that he would be hanged if he ever showed up in Charlotte County, he grabbed his twin Smith & Wesson pistols, hopped on a train, went to the site of the lynching and waited for someone to show up. Before boarding the train, Mitchell replied to the threat with a quote from Shakespeare:

“There are no terrors, Cassius, in your threats, for I am so strong in honesty that they pass by me like the idle wind, which I respect not”

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No one showed up.

When he grew tired of white Republicans telling Virginia’s Black residents what was good for them, he ran for governor in 1921 under the “Lily Black” faction, an all-Black Republican ticket. Mitchell’s antics attracted people from across the nation to Richmond. He befriended the best and brightest in the city and insisted that they could make Jackson Ward into a powerhouse. He founded the Mechanics Savings Bank in 1902 and served as president for 20 years. The same year that Mechanics Savings opened, Maggie L. Walker, a Black philanthropist, became the first Black woman to charter and serve as president of a bank.

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Maggie L. Walker wasn’t crazy.

Although they were road dawgs, Walker was essentially a more refined, female version of Mitchell. As Mitchell was an avid member of the secret society, the Knights of Pythias, Walker founded the Independent Order of St. Luke—a semi-secret charitable society. She started her own newspaper, The St. Luke Herald, and essentially opened a mall in the center of Jackson Ward—the St. Luke Emporium (She was really infatuated with this Luke guy. She must have been a huge Star Wars fan). She opened an insurance company and shops that employed 300 people, mostly African-American women.

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The building also had an auditorium that held 500 people. Sadly, they never had a step show there. But they did have pro wrestling (seriously, they did.) And when she outgrew the building, Walker hired Virginia’s first Black architect, a Tuskegee graduate named Charles T. Russell, to remodel the building by adding a floor.

Like Mitchell, Walker also worked as a teacher. And remember that crazy idea Mitchell had to run for governor? Well, that same statewide Lily Black ticket featured the first woman of any color to run for statewide office in Virginia—Maggie L. Walker for Virginia superintendent of education.

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Her Luke Penny Savings and Loans was one of the few banks to survive the stock market crash of 1929 because she had the forethought to merge with two of the city’s other Black-owned banks. Consolidated Bank and Trust was acquired in a merger in 2011, but the Jackson Ward branch still exists to this day.

Before cars became popular, in 1888, Mitchell and Walker worked together to promote a technological achievement that changed Richmond’s Black business district—the world’s first electric trolley.

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In the early 1900s, Jackson Ward became the destination for Black people who lived in Virginia’s entire Piedmont region. The neighborhood was home to so many Black-owned banks, insurance companies and other investment groups that Jackson Ward garnered another name that, because of a tragedy, would eventually become better-known somewhere else:

The Black Wall Street.

Maggie and Richie’s goal wasn’t to get rich or die trying, their goal was economic independence for their community. Walker spent her money teaching children about saving money and even started a juvenile center. Meanwhile, Mitchell began fighting this new thing called “Jim Crow.”

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In 1904, the city passed a law segregating seats on the trolley system. Of course, Mitchell wouldn’t stand for it. Instead of going toe-to-toe with Richmond’s powerful white leadership, Walker and Mitchell turned to Black Richmonders. They organized meetings in churches and businesses in Jackson Ward, convincing residents not to patronize the city transportation system with the slogan “Big feet, great blessing.” (I know; it’s no “Make America Great Again,” but they didn’t have time to workshop the motto.) As soon as the law became official, Mitchell ran a headline running the names of every Black Jackson Ward resident who had been snared by the “Jim Crow Street Car Law.”

Zero.

You know Mitchell gloated, writing:

We have not been on a street-car in this city since it went into effect. God blessed us with big feet and we are walking. We pause to remark that we are enjoying better health now than we have ever experienced during our whole life. Even our financial condition has improved to an extent as a result of it.

To Mr. Gordon and his friends as well as to the colored folks we say, walking is good, now, stay off the street-cars.

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Five years later, the trolley system would go into receivership because Jackson Ward’s Black population refused to ride it. If you look at the history of most economically independent Black areas, the end of the story is always the same:

Urban renewal.

The city would get its revenge a few years later when it destroyed 200 homes surrounding Walker’s Penny Saving Bank, replaced them with housing projects and only allowed 25 of Jackson Ward’s Black families to move into nearly 300 segregated units. The city then built a highway through the center of the neighborhood’s historic center, displacing thousands more. By the time Richmond’s City Council was all-Black in the 1970s, the area had been decimated.

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Still eager to colonize the area, Virginia’s state legislature tried to finish the job by building a toll road through Jackson Ward connecting one majority-white suburb with another affluent neighborhood. Using eminent domain, the bypass leveled 2,800 more homes in Jackson Ward. By 2010, whites had gentrified the area and it no longer had a majority African-American population.

Although Richmond’s Black Wall Street will never be the same, each successive generation tried to hold on to its rich legacy through bargains and concessions. Although the Virginia legislature was overwhelmingly white, they staked their claim on one address. Black residents refused to allow the erasure of one important part of their legacy, so one piece of historic Jackson Ward still stands to this day:

The home of Maggie L. Walker...the queen of Black Wall Street.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

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feministonfire
FeministOnFire

Thank you so much for writing these little-known Black History stories. I learn so much and am grateful, if not a little more pessimistic, for having read them.