Du Bois was an early champion of racial integration, but over time he became skeptical that white society would ever fully accept Black people. The eventual fate of Greenwood may have swayed his thinking. He began emphasizing group economics more and more, which put him out of step with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization he co-founded, and its ardent pursuit of desegregation. By the 1940s, Du Bois was advocating that Black communities create their own socialized health care system, communally owned banks and a consumer-focused economy in which goods created by Black manufacturers could be sold by Black merchants at or near the cost of production. “Today we work for others at wages pressed down to the limit of subsistence,” he argued. “Tomorrow we may work for ourselves, exchanging services, producing an increasing proportion of the goods which we consume and being rewarded by a living wage and by work under civilized conditions.”
Greenwood, in many ways, was the model. The community created an indelible legacy of self-determination, which Black people sought to emulate for generations. “A lot of cities had their version of Greenwood, because Black communities knew that they could create an ecosystem that benefited them,” said Andre M. Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Black entrepreneurship and land ownership.
In the Jim Crow era, places like Durham, N.C., and Richmond, Va., echoed Greenwood’s melding of Black enterprise with community-building. In the 1970s, as racial integration began in fits and starts, Floyd McKisick, a civil rights activist, attempted to build a planned community in North Carolina called Soul City, which he had hoped would become a shining symbol of Black economic power. The community never gathered the funding necessary to be fully developed. “When people talk about maximizing Black economics, so to speak, it gets to ownership,” Perry said. “How can we own property, businesses and culture in ways that advance a community, not just individuals?”
Today, with “buy back the block” movements in places like Los Angeles; Portland, Ore., and Birmingham, Ala., Black residents are striving to purchase commercial real estate in their own communities. They see the value of owning the economic engines of their neighborhoods the way Loula Williams once did. Greenwood’s “amusement queen” wasn’t just selling entertainment; she was building a blueprint that Black businesses still aim to follow.