Anthony Brogdon wants to tell you about the history of Black businesses.
The Detroit-based filmmaker recently debuted his latest documentary, Business in the Black: The Rise of Black Business in America 1800 -1960’s. During the Chicago premier of this important film,at The South Side Community Arts Center –the historic house of Black art in Bronzeville, Brogdon shared with the audience details regarding his discoveries of the history of Black businesses.
The film opens with Brogdon asking how did Blacks attend college during the era of American chattel slavery. In a few scenes, the film tells us the history of how some of our ancestors were more privileged than others because they learned how to read and write from their oppressors. Brogden not only acknowledges people like John Chavis (the first black person on record to attend an American college or university), but he goes on to list the founding of historically Black colleges and universities. A memorable point in the film comes by way of a reenactment of a small group of enslaved persons having a conservation about learning how to read and write.
Fortunately, Brogdon provides the much-needed context of racism and white nationalistic violence against Black people as obstacles to economic freedom. Enslaved Africans did not become literate in isolation; they had to be taught. Brogdon enlightens his audience to the privileges some enslaved house servants had opposed to those who worked in the field. Due to their proximity to Whiteness, some Africans who served in plantation homes had more access to education. Sometimes, oppressors took it upon themselves to teach American literacy to the enslaved for varying reasons.
Brogdon briefly explores White nationalistic violence (or what many would deem a “race riot”) and its effect on growing Black communities. The familiar horror stories of Black Wall Street and the riots of Red Summer were the central narratives, and at one point a person reads a long list of communities that were destroyed by visceral racism. The realization that small segregated Black neighborhoods were the focal point of angry White communities for destruction pushes one to question how would those neighborhoods have progressed had they not been interrupted. How would Black businesses looked had they not been systematically targeted for destruction? Where would Black people be amidst striving and prosperous Black businesses?
Black Business in America presents the viewer with a quick glimpse of historical factoids. Clocking in at 75 minutes, this low-budget film (Brogdon says he spent $10,000) primarily relies on Michigan locals reading Black trivia facts about the millionaires of yesteryear. Brogdon’s film will serve as a good educational tool for many of those who are not aware of the many financial accomplishments of African-Americans; it can also build pride amongst a new generation unfamiliar with the times when Black businesses were booming. But, the movie is limited and does not take advantage of some of the most compelling scenes; more stories from the people who experienced the booming season for Black businesses would have made the documentary even better.
“If I had more money, I would’ve traveled and gone to other cities,” says Brogdon.
Those who are interviewed–mostly Black elders–share past stories through rose-colored lenses about their Detroit community that once stood tall in the midst of racial oppression. In one scene, Black Detroiters reminisce on the nightclubs they once owned and frequented. Viewers can see the joy in their expressions as they rehash old memories under a utopic vision of the forgotten past. You couldn’t buy the genuineness and familiarity that jumped off the screen nor could you not envision Chicago’s historical businesses perched on the South and West sides during that same era.
Brogdon covers a time period that spans over a century. “I stopped at the 60’s because I didn’t want to get people into a conversation about what’s wrong with Blacks. People make that cry a lot,” says Brogdon. “But I wanted to give a great historical perspective of what was happening during slavery days.”
At the end of the film screening in Chicago, Brogdon took questions and provided further commentary on the film. While he is proud of the history that he covered, he believes that Black business is only getting better.
“We’ve expanded what we do. We own 80 McDonald’s. We own sports teams. We’ve expanded all the way around,” says Brogdon. “The only thing we lack is owning the everyday stores in our communities like the gas stations, the grocery stores, and the retail stores. But we’ve grown by leaps and bounds.”
The focus on building Black businesses and economic independence has always been a contentious subject spurring intense debate amongst race leaders. Famed Black businessman Booker T. Washington, featured in Brogdon’s film, has always maintained the position that self-reliance, industrial education, and hard work is the way that Blacks will live harmoniously. Washington advocated for Blacks to learn trades and not so much mingle in race relations. Brogdon’s film carries the same tone.
However, there must be recognition of the counterargument. W.E.B. Du Bois, a forefather of sociology and opponent of Washington, says, “to ask the individual colored man . . . to sell meat, shoes, candy, books, cigars, clothes or fruit in competition with the chain store, is to ask him to commit slow but almost inevitable economic suicide.” Perhaps, there should be a marriage of the two ideologies. Can Black people work hard establishing their own businesses and fully acknowledge the harmful economic system in which they exist? The documentary pushes this question but leans toward Washington’s sentiments. Brogdon would say racism plays little in Black economic progress today.
“We find ways to overcome that. There is still racism in some cases when trying to get loans or bidding for city contracts,” says Brogdon. “There is some underhanded stuff. But I won’t say that is a crutch. We can still overcome that. We have Black venture-capitalists who are willing to invest in local Black businesses.”
It would behoove Black people to support Anthony Brogdon’s effort. Supporting Brogdon is supporting those who make appearances in the film, Black businesses, and the Black historical narrative. His film, Black Business In America, is available for purchase on Amazon.