Straight out of the Black Bourgeoisie: Lessons for the 21st Century

This is the story of the black bourgeoisie. You may not ever have heard of it, but theirs is a story of a successful ecosystem, created under legal segregation and at the inception of the country by free blacks. It consists of a strong dedication to business enterprise, education and organizations that propel children to success. It is grounded in the structure of America and has survived time and great change. Although this model has not been front-and-center of public attention, it contains an outline of success for black America going forward. 

Strategies of ‘free blacks’

I am a product of the black bourgeoisie, and have always worn its history and value on my sleeve. In her book, “The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce,” Deirdre McCloskey notes that market economies are good for us, and it was the values of the bourgeoisie that set the stage for economic growth in America. We can thank our forebears for adopting a framework that placed us where we are today. They did this in the face of true racial hostility, when they were not allowed to locate their enterprises in the main section of cities with other merchants. Yet the black bourgeoisie persevered, during and after slavery, because they concentrated on education, enterprises and the maintenance of their value structure.

The black bourgeoisie had its origins in free blacks, during the slavery years, with their strategy of building strong communities and private high schools and colleges. They lived in the North and South, although the southern portion blossomed after the Civil War. When I wrote a piece for the Austin American Statesman, “Celebrating the Black Bourgeoisie,” my email box quickly filled with comments from people who were shocked to learn that members of my group — the black bourgeoisie — are today in their third and fourth generations of college matriculation, have never lived in “ghettos,” and instead created towns of their own with thriving enterprises.  

In cities, they created business enclaves that stood at the center of their mission of economic opportunity and education. W E. B. Du Bois, in his 1898 book, “Economic Co-Operation Among Negroes,” called this “the group economy.” These communities put business enterprise at their center, and business owners were the heroes who set their visions for the future. In his 1911 book, “The College-bred Negro American,” Du Bois’s data showed that children were launched into communities by parents who were professionals and business owners — those who represented the core of the early black bourgeoisie. As noted by Margo Jefferson in “Negroland: A Memoir,” the DNA of the bourgeoisie was embedded in organizations that were founded at the turn of the century and passed along to future generations.  

These organizations include Jack and Jill, for young people to attend college, the National Council of Negro Women, and the National Negro Business League. Over the years, these organizations — and others — have had a great impact on the development of black Americans. The civil rights movement of the 1960s, in its own way, was a black bourgeoisie movement; the leaders came from these communities and displayed the influence of community organizations. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was a third-generation Morehouse graduate and member of Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. He came from the economically secure Auburn Avenue community in Atlanta. Ralph Abernathy was born on a 500-acre farm in Linden, Ala., attended Alabama State College and Atlanta University, and was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi. Bayard Rustin went to Wilberforce University.

These leaders, and many others, started their educational track at colleges — and would go on to get advanced degrees at major universities — that were established by ex-slaves who put education and business at the center of their vision. The civil rights movement benefited mostly the children of the early black bourgeoisie, whose greatest contribution, perhaps, is that before desegregation they educated their children.

I speak from experience

I am from the southern black bourgeoisie, which took the culture to its fullest under legal segregation. This meant understanding some of the distresses of the system and its benefits. The distress was that black businesspeople were not allowed to put their enterprises in business sections of cities; the benefit was that it allowed for the coming together of like-minded people who recognized the benefit of their culture and an ecosystem based on success. It sheltered black bourgeois children from the racist value structure of southern white America.

When I was coming of age, I entered a network of strong families, of private and public colleges and universities, of communities with great business enclaves, churches that supported black educational institutions, and role models who had experienced abundant success. 

Thus, when I applied to college — seeking to be the fourth child in my family to attend, and to be a fourth-generation college graduate — the value structure had been set by ex-slaves just 100 years after slavery. My network in southern Louisiana consisted of a high school where all teachers had master’s degrees, outstanding business people, and professors at Dillard and Xavier universities in New Orleans and Southern University in Baton Rouge. My siblings had attended Dillard, Southern, and Indiana University.

This bourgeoisie network was present in all southern states — business and education produced great communities, trade school graduates and college graduates. As noted by Daniel Thompson, professor at Dillard, in his book, “A Black Elite: A Profile of UNCF Colleges,” “… Not only have most of the black college graduates in this study moved far beyond their parents, … their overall success is indeed comparable to that of their white peers from much more affluent socio-economic backgrounds.”

The importance of the black bourgeoisie for black Americans is rarely acknowledged and, when it is, it is often turned into a negative. First published in 1957, E.F. Frazier’s “Black Bourgeoisie” criticized blacks for starting private colleges and universities, joining organizations, and thriving in a market economy. Most blacks in this tradition hide all of this and, unlike me, do not “wear it.” Intergenerational college graduates and economic stability are accused of being “white” attributes, and some act as though they should not exist in America. Blacks today routinely announce that they’re from “the ghetto,” as if to say that makes them better than other blacks. The mainstream media hardly ever highlight black achievement, as noted in George Fraser’s book, “Success Runs in Our Race.” 

I felt the “success backlash,” and realized how my culture of education and excellence had been put on the back burner of society’s cultural awareness when I arrived for graduate school at Northwestern University. I was seen as being from “the segregated South” and somehow not understanding the “freedom” that black northerners had. I was introduced to the woman, who would become my wife, with the words:  “Meet John Butler — he is just off the plantation.” As a southern black bourgeoisie, I was shocked to find that most northern blacks grew up with no system of black private colleges or great communities that were built by blacks.

I was accustomed to my parents dragging me to every football game at Southern University, their alma mater, and interacting with other successful black families. We visited Jackson State in Mississippi, Tennessee State in Nashville, and Prairie View in Texas. The visit to Grambling was always tense because my grandparents finished from Grambling and hated Southern University.  I remember being in awe as we visited others in Houston and Nashville.

The cloud of legal segregation always hung above us; I remember when Southern played Alabama A&M at an off-campus field and we all went to the “Southern side” of the stadium. But because 10 whites chose to attend the game, we were told to get up and move across the stadium, leaving the few whites to occupy one entire side. 

Strong foundations

Despite segregation, black culture was strong. Even today, I have to defend to my southern black bourgeoisie network why I chose Louisiana State, which was not a black bourgeoisie university,  over Morehouse or Xavier as my undergraduate institution.

To be sure, not all black southerners — or black northerners, for that matter — enjoyed the results of my particular socialization. But it was available to all.  To join the bourgeoisie, you simply had to adopt the culture and then make contributions to it.

The bourgeoisie tradition always has been important for Americans’ success, regardless of race. In “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” Harold Cruse notes that when one talks about racial integration, one must understand which type of whites one will chose to associate with — because not all whites have achieved. Those who have achieved belong to strong groups that value business and education and the building of institutions to launch the next generation. Nancy Isenberg explores this theme in her book, “White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.” Different white ethnic groups built a business community base to launch the next generation. As she notes, “Everybody wants a ghetto to look back on.” In the case of blacks, to be sure, one has to decry the ugliness of legal racial segregation but applaud the consequential development of communities with an emphasis on business and education.

Two case studies in particular underscore the importance of black bourgeoisie culture and its effect on black Americans. In 1899, Du Bois published his landmark study, “The Philadelphia Negro,” the first study to document the impact of racism on blacks who had moved to Philadelphia. He documented crime, poverty, drug addiction and other issues that Philadelphia’s Negro population dealt with that added to the social blight of community. There was no bourgeoisie culture built into the community.

In 1911, Booker T. Washington published “Durham, North Carolina: A City of Negro Enterprises.” He noted that Durham “offers none of the color and creative class life we find among Negroes in New York City. It is a city of fine homes … and middle-class respectability. It is not the place where men write and dream, but a place where black men calculate and work. … As we read the lives of the men in Durham who have established the enterprises, we find stories paralleling the most amazing accounts of the building of American fortunes. These men have mastered the technique of modern business and acquired the spirit of modern enterprise.”   

These entrepreneurs helped to build and support North Carolina College, which was right in the middle of the community, and many of the black private schools in North Carolina. Hillside High School had such a great reputation for sending children to college that the community refused to close it during the desegregation court cases, arguing that their black school was the best high school in Durham. The community really celebrated when, in 1944, a secret game was created under the walls of segregation so that the North Carolina College for Negroes could play the powerful white Duke University team located on the other side of town. The result? North Carolina College for Negroes crushed Duke in the game, and the community celebrated like they’d won a Super Bowl.

A comparison of Washington’s work on Durham and Du Bois’s work on Philadelphia shows the importance of creating business-based bourgeois communities. For Durham, the legal word was segregation, but it blossomed because of the acceptance of bourgeoisie culture. Since I wear the success of my bourgeoisie group on sleeves, one of my goals has been to create the analog of bourgeois, self-help structures that produced excellent black communities — some of which are now troubled. I think that black Americans occupy the best land in the Western world, many of them living in cities that are troublesome now, but that could thrive in the future with an infusion of bourgeoisie culture.

Redefining ‘gentrification’

Throughout the South, and in some northern cities, historians have documented how black communities turned segregation upside down, building structures and institutions to serve future generations. Remember that the term “gentrification” simply means “in the bourgeoisie tradition,” or more simply, “people of means.” It really has nothing to do with whites moving into black neighborhoods, as many people believe. People of means in black America helped to create great communities and, with the right vision, people today could create and revive communities.

Indeed, the process is already under way. As Woodson Center founder and president Robert Woodson has noted, the Rev. Blake “Buster” Soaries has “recreated” Washington’s Durham in New Jersey, with the Central Jersey Community Development Corporation. This CDC serves as  a national showcase. Thirty years ago, when the Woodson Center sponsored my research on the historic black district of Durham, Rev. Soaries was often part of our discussions.

Preserving the culture

Black bourgeoisie culture can be utilized in all northern cities — and certainly needs to be revitalized in the South. Can you imagine Cleveland and Detroit, for example, having a private school like Hampton University or Miles College? Can you imagine black Americans creating a real estate trust and buying the land of central cities and turning them into the Durham that Booker T. Washington described? Can you imagine — as T.M. Pryor did in his groundbreaking book, “Wealth Building Lessons of Booker T. Washington for a New Black America” — a black America that completely embraces market economies for the 21st century? Can you imagine communities that again launch children into the larger society who are well educated and have a black bourgeoisie flair?

One of the great books on bourgeoisie culture, race and segregation is Min Zhou’s “Chinatown.”  Professor Zhou took on scholars who referred to Chinese living in Chinatown as being “segregated” and exploited by Chinese enterprises. She notes that Chinatown represents a business enclave where Chinese can understand the importance of business enterprise, start their own businesses, and launch future generations to outstanding educational careers.

I continue to be amazed when newspapers note that a person was “very successful … but was born in the segregated South.” I continue to recoil in horror at how blacks are presented in the national media, and how the New York Times introduced us to The 1619 Project, which ignores the history of my tradition and presents blacks as going from slavery to poverty, with no role models.  

But I realized that perhaps most Americans grew up in places that have never seen successful black educational institutions and powerful black communities. I am happy to be from the segregated South, where private colleges and great communities flourished because the ex-slaves who created them had a vision for black excellence. Most of the older bourgeois enclaves of the South have faded into memory, but the organizations and institutions and value structure remain. Although we attend different colleges and universities, the original black colleges and universities produced 50 percent of all black judges, doctors and attorneys, 13 percent of black CEOs, and a host of other successful people. Not bad for the southern bourgeoisie tradition.

Recently a friend called to discuss a problem. Originally from Chicago, but living in Austin, he said his daughter received a full scholarship to Baylor University. Then his wife and daughter visited Spelman in Atlanta, and his daughter refused to go to Baylor on the full scholarship. Now, with travel and other expenses, he is paying more than $50,000 a year for her to attend Spelman. I said, “Welcome to my tradition — been a black southern thing for a mighty long time.”

Most know what it means to be “Straight outta Compton.” Though my culture likely will never make it to the silver screen, “Straight out of the Black Bourgeoisie” is a great model, a tradition worth copying for the 21stcentury. It inspires people to achieve, with a motto of success.

John Sibley Butler holds the J. Marion West Chair for Constructive Capitalism in the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, Austin. A Vietnam War veteran and recipient of the Bronze Star, John served as an economic advisor to George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign and is the author of several books on black, minority, and immigrant entrepreneurship and self-help, including Immigrant and Minority Entrepreneurship: The Continuous Rebirth of American Communities. He is a management consultant for State Farm Insurance and Distinguished Visiting Professor position at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo.

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