On May 31, 1921, the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, was engulfed in one of the bloodiest race riots in U.S. history. By the time the carnage ended the next day, the Red Cross estimated there were 300 fatalities, more than 10,000 people left homeless and more than 1,400 homes that were either burned or looted.
The greatest damage occurred in the Greenwood section of Tulsa, an African-American community that was dubbed “Black Wall Street” because it offered a surplus of successful black-owned businesses and was home to the city’s most prominent African-American legal and medical professionals and entrepreneurs. Nearly 200 businesses were destroyed there in the riot, along with several churches, a school and a hospital.
For many decades, the story of Black Wall Street and the Tulsa race riot was mostly forgotten. Eldorado Anderson, a 37-year-old educational administrator and the owner of DreamLifeWorks LLC, an event production company in Bridgeport, only learned of the event three years ago when he picked up a copy of Scott Ellsworth’s critically acclaimed book, “Death in a Promised Land.”
“This is something I knew nothing about,” Anderson said. “I was so taken away: there were over 600 businesses in Tulsa, which was once the biggest, booming black neighborhood in the country.”
A Bridgeport native and graduate of Virginia State University, Anderson is dean of students at Great Oaks Charter School in Bridgeport and previously served in the same post at the now-closed Domus Academy in New Haven. The story of the social and economic success that Tulsa’s African-American population enjoyed in the years before the 1921 tragedy struck a nerve with Anderson, who believed that he could recreate that entrepreneurial spirit in his home town. In 2014, he launched Black Wall Street Bridgeport, an event marketing platform designed to showcase minority businesses while providing educational outreach to people of color seeking to work for themselves.
In his first event in the fall of 2014, Anderson produced a one-day street festival for local black-owned businesses to display their products and services. “In the first event, we had 31 entrepreneurs,” he recalled. “Fast forward to now and we are expecting 180 vendors for Black Wall Street 5, which is taking place on September 3 at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit in Bridgeport.”
The Black Wall Street Bridgeport platform consists of three events: the main showcase held in late summer, a Christmas season edition focusing on holiday-related products from local vendors and a spring edition that highlights the work of women entrepreneurs. While participation in these events is growing, Anderson said that most of the events’ vendors still maintain their day jobs while running their entrepreneurial endeavors on the side.
“I think we are at the beginning stages,” he said optimistically. “Since the inception of Black Wall Street Bridgeport, I’ve seen five or six people leave their jobs and take on entrepreneurship full time. I am not going to say it is solely because of Black Wall Street, but I think that the enthusiasm in working for yourself has increased.”
Anderson has seen some business owners launch their enterprises with more enthusiasm than focus and planning. “I’ve seen businesses start and fold within three to six months,” he said. “The main mistakes involve not having enough money to pay for unexpected costs and not recognizing that just because it is a great idea doesn’t mean it is going to work. But, on the other hand, I’ve seen more people take proactive approaches and involve other partners in joint business ventures.”
Anderson practices what he preaches with respect to budgeting and teamwork. He works from his Bridgeport home along with his fiancé and his sister.
Aware that Black Wall Street vendors are working on tight budgets, he charges $75 for booth space at his event. He considers that a bargain fee when compared with similar black business expositions in major cities, where booth space can begin at $400 or more. Food trucks are charged $150 to participate in Black Wall Street. He said his company generates additional revenue from advertising and marketing promotions tied to the events.
“I want to be able to include as many people to participate as possible,” he said.
Anderson observed that many adults considering entrepreneurship have no prior educational training in business, marketing or management, which puts them at an initial disadvantage. To ensure that does not befall a future generation of entrepreneurs, he plans to launch a Black Wall Street Educational Academy next year.
“It will have a six-week summer run for kids in grades six through eight. We will have various business owners come in talk to about what they do and how they do it,” he said. “At least once a week, we will visit local businesses. And at the end of the academy, there will be a children’s expo where the students can display their products. Right now, kids between five and 17 can get free booths at the main Black Wall Street event.”
If Anderson has any serious disappointment in his work to date, it would be the absence of stronger community support and networking among black-owned businesses and prospective business owners. “My top two sponsors, T-Mobile and (Bridgeport) City Council Member Eneida Martinez, are not African-American,” he said. “They believe in the vision more than some of the people that look like me.”
Anderson, however, did not want his work to create an insulated and self-segregated cocoon of black enterprise in Bridgeport. Circling back to his historical inspiration, he noted the potential that commerce has in breaking down barriers.
“Many people don’t know that in the original Black Wall Street in Tulsa, it wasn’t just black people doing business with each other,” he said. “It was black and white people that wanted to do business together. Black Wall Street is not just for a black person — any person who wants to contribute is welcome. The goal is to uplift the entire community and give people the freedom to become entrepreneurs.”