Blog Entry Economic Opportunity

Reflections on Detroit's Rich Black Wealth Legacy

by Christopher Rutherford

The Motor City is undergoing a renaissance -- at least that’s what the headlines read. But does this renaissance represent a resurgence for all, or just the few whose privilege has prepared them for its boom?

In 2017 CBMA made a commitment to invest in the city of Detroit on behalf of Black men and boys through the Black Male Equity Initiative (BMEI). Under the joint leadership of CBMA CEO Shawn Dove and Torch Enterprises CEO Dr. Pamela Jolly, we are embarking on a journey to help rebuild Detroit’s legacy of Black wealth.

The Detroit Black Male Equity Initiative is a diverse group of community-minded Black men who are fathers, entrepreneurs, organizers, inventors, educators and artists interested in developing a better relationship with money, so they can build wealth for themselves and their community.  The mission of BMEI is to teach and remind Black communities, that our history is rooted in the ideology of building for ourselves. 

Guided by Dr. Jolly and her team of Black economic gurus, this 12-month pilot explores the questions:  What is wealth, and how do Black males build it? Equity is "wealth stored up and there is an abundance of wealth stored up in every black man in America”. Members of the inaugural Black Male Equity Initiative co-define and co-design ways to build wealth their way in their community. Together these men learn new and meaningful ways to build in the areas of business, finance strategy and investment. As I sit working through a BMEI budget exercise during one of our four intensive meetings, a million thoughts run through my mind.  The work of understanding my financial health in this year-long intensive process is getting harder as we look from the historical to the present. What does Black Male Equity mean to me personally as a Black man?

BMEI stands in a long line of Detroit activists, churches, mosques, non-profits, business leaders, and civic organizations who are working tirelessly to build Black economic stability in the city.  As a lifelong Detroiter I can’t help but think about the stories of self-determination and Black ownership that existed in this city in areas like Hastings street, Paradise Valley and Royal Oak Township during those pre-Civil Rights movement years. I remember the history of Black innovation and advancement by those who migrated from the south in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s with nothing but the clothes on their backs, scraping and saving meager wages to buy their homes (and in some instances, multiple houses). I think about the social, civic and business organizations such as the NAAP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Urban League, Pan African Orthodox Christian Church, Nation of Islam, Republik of New Africa, Motown, United Negro Improvement Association, and the Booker T. Washington Business Association just to name of few.

In my perspective, there was no end to the possibilities of Black equity and legacy wealth. I witnessed the legacy of Black business as African Americans owned TV and radio stations before BET and Radio One. I remember Black-owned grocery stores, banks, car dealerships; Black contractors, mayors, city officials, doctors, professors, school superintendents and corporate executives.  

As I begin to document my assets and liabilities I can’t help but question: what happened to that legacy and that great community of self-determination?

Peering out of the window at the Detroit River, I’m suddenly reminded of how we got here, and a wave of anxiety crashes over me to think of what’s been lost.. I’m reminded of the abandonment and disinvestment of corporations from urban centers over the last 40 years.  How giant industries crumbled, wiping out entire economic ecosystems in their aftermath. The way predatory lenders and mortgage scams took advantage of naive first-time home buyers eager to obtain the American dream, only to lose it during the foreclosure crisis and see entire neighborhoods destroyed as a result.

Working through my numbers, I get discouraged. Man! What happened to me? What happened to my finances, where did I go left? Contemplating these challenges weighs heavily on my mind. 

Here we sit in our Sankofa moment. Black Male Equity; what must we do to get back to the path we were on? 

2018 has been a powerful year, both for me and the dedicated group of brothers that have committed themselves to learning and working together. I’m glad BMEI is here. There is no better time to reclaim and rebuild the legacy we were given. Now is when our community must once again honor the legacy of our ancestors who taught us how to build and prepare for the future. 

In my reflections, I remember the words of my 85-year-old mother: “The past is the past. Ain’t nothing you can do about it now. So, get moving!” In that moment I realize that these painful reminders of what we’ve lost are also powerful reminders of what we can do. We must turn this around. And we will.

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