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Are Historically-Black Towns History?

Photo credit: Drew Grimes/Wikimedia

Recently, I came across two sets of articles about Historically Black towns in Oklahoma and in Missouri. Part as a means of segregation and part as a means of dignity, self-respect and control of the civic space, African-Americans established or had help establishing their own towns after slavery. Unfortunately, the promises of economic growth and civic engagement were short-lived in many of these towns. Some were burned down. Others were disenfranchised or had other restrictions placed on them. Others died thanks to integration and increased opportunities for Blacks. In North Carolina, the town of Princeville, the first incorporated Black town in the United States. was nearly washed out by Hurricane Floyd in 1999. It has recovered, but as recently as 2012 had its town accounting taken over by the State of North Carolina.

Yet the opportunity exists for some of these towns to improve. Some can restore what architecture is left. Others can launch efforts to lure entrepreneurs and others interested in the slow food, do-it-yourself, and community placemaking movements. Plus, for those seeking refuge from higher rents in the city, but still wanting a walkable and vibrant neighborhood, they could become a newer version of whatever inner city neighborhood has died. For those who have outlived their usefulness or are too damaged for repair, care should be taken to preserve history through monuments and exhibits and folk festivals. Fellow planner and author Sheryse N. Dubose has called upon those, namely fellow Black Americans, who see themselves as being victims of gentrification, to gentrify their own selves, i.e. return to older towns and neighborhoods, purchase these homes that have value to other cultures and maintain unique characteristics such as eateries, music venues and corner stores that sell specific foods.

Something else that’s interesting, is how the struggles of black towns compare to struggles of black neighborhoods in bigger, integrated on paper, cities. It appears that in the times of segregation, that black towns were able to avoid issues of redlining, urban renewal and gentrification by enacting their own self governance. Their main threat, if the surrounding white towns did not care that they succeeded, appeared to be loss of commerce, no different than those predominately white small towns and rural townships. Other questions that arise are their ability to accept people of other cultures, such as Mexican farm workers or Asian refugees to regrow their population; if some major cities are defacto black towns now (i.e. Detroit) ;and can we continue our quest for integration, while preserving history and unique cultural businesses?

It is ultimately the question that has been the center of my blogging for the past 3 years: is black urbanism still a thing?

And with that, I invite you over to North Carolina Placebook for something that’s quite living, the latest news on governance and placemaking throughout North Carolina.

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