The relatively small, segregated portion of Wichita’s African-American community around Ninth and Cleveland once produced genius far out of proportion to its size.
It produced activists who executed one of the nation’s first sit-ins and launched World War II’s “Double V” campaign, and a man who helped form the Congressional Black Caucus.
It produced multiple Ph.D.s and other people with master’s degrees. But a wont of opportunity forced virtually all of that genius out of Wichita. By the early 1990s, police were calling the area “crack alley.”
My hope for Wichita’s future is that its black community seeds an entrepreneurship renaissance and stops its brain drain. A rising economic tide there creates voting and taxpaying stakeholders, stabilizes households and drives innovation.
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Our nation was a corporation before it was a country, and the enduring truth about our society is less about soaring ideas such as freedom and liberty and more about business ownership.
Dockum Drugstore’s owner, for example, acquiesced to the demands of the NAACP Youth Group that spent its July sitting-in at his downtown Wichita lunch counter back in 1958 by saying, “Serve them. I’m losing too much money.”
My hero, Jo Brown, the outspoken former head of the Wichita School Board, has said that she had the safety to say exactly what needed to be said in her role because her family was financially insulated from reprisal by her husband’s medical practice.
Boycotts that emptied the pockets of retailers shoved Wichita in the 1960s toward ending the discriminatory shopping practices downtown.
And yet, as the elders say, African Americans got what they wanted and lost what they had. African Americans moved into neighborhoods once closed to them but in the process, the black businesses that once served them crashed and black unemployment soared.
This economic void birthed “Crack Alley” and so much more.
Steady employment stabilizes households and families and schools and businesses. It makes saving possible, and saving makes home ownership possible, and home ownership plants pride in people and in communities. Stable communities have less crime.
Jobs aren’t the answer for everything. Cultural formation is critical, too. But as David Gilkey says, “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
Given the high and stubborn levels of joblessness in black communities, we’ll need to overseed the ground entrepreneurially in the coming decades.
Luckily, we have incredible natural resources locally.
The late historian Craig Minor explained how city leaders demanded the Chisholm Trail and the railroad come here and unleashed decades of growth and prosperity.
Today, we have one of the great civic leadership nonprofits anywhere in the Kansas Leadership Center. It was launched by one of the nation’s great health philanthropies, the Kansas Health Foundation. We have a school of entrepreneurship at Wichita State University.
We have folks like Gary Oborny, who is teaching entrepreneurship to elementary students, and Bernard Knowles, who founded the local Heartland Black Chamber of Commerce, and Christina Long, owner of CML Collective LLC, who is helping to grow businesses.
Wichita’s future crossed my mind recently during the memorial service for Evies Cranford, a kind, dignified but fun-loving friend who had lost his fight with cancer. We believe he and his wife, Sharon, were Wichita’s first black Ph.D. couple.
“Doc” Cranford had distinguished himself in New York and in Texas and then came to Wichita with his degrees. But after years of work teaching, mentoring and desegregating schools, he initially could only get a job here teaching math at Hamilton Middle School.
But his responsibilities grew and as they did, so did his gifts to this community. Looking around the church Saturday, he had clearly touched everyone in that room.
But I wondered what Wichita would look like today had it been able to keep much of that talent around Ninth and Cleveland that was forced to flee for lack of opportunity?
My dream for Wichita is to try again to get a glimpse.
What might have been can still be.
Mark McCormick is executive director of the Kansas African American Museum. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.