African-American upper class

The African-American upper class consists of engineers, lawyers, accountants, doctors, politicians, business executives, venture capitalists, CEOs, celebrities, entertainers, entrepreneurs and heirs who have incomes amounting to $200,000 or more.[1][2] This social class, sometimes referred to as the black upper class, the black upper middle class or black elite, represents less than one percent of the total black population in the United States.[3] This group of blacks has a history of organizations and activities that distinguish it from other classes within the black community, as well as from the white upper class. Many of these traditions, which have persisted for several generations, are discussed in Lawrence Otis Graham’s 2000 book, Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class.

Scholarship on this class from a sociological perspective is generally traced to E. Franklin Frazier's Black Bourgeoisie (first edition in English in 1957 translated from the 1955 French original).

Historical background

When African slaves were brought to the Americas in the 17th and 18th centuries and sold into slavery, there began to be mixed-race children of African and European descent in the Americas. Then called "mulattoes," they were sometimes not enslaved by their white slave-holding fathers and comprised a large part of the free black population in the South.[4] In addition, numbers of Africans escaped to freedom during the American Revolution. Others were manumitted by their enslavers. The free black community in the US had therefore increased considerably by 1800, and although most of them were very poor, some were able to own farmland or to learn mechanical or artistic trades.[4]

Some people escaped slavery and served in the American Civil War (1861-1865) for the Union and after the war, some of them received 40 acres (160,000 m2) and a mule, which contributed to land ownership among blacks following the emancipation of slaves.

Other former slaves, often mixed-race former house slaves who shared ancestry with their onetime owners and had acquired marketable skills such as cooking and tailoring, worked in domestic fields or were able to open small businesses such as restaurants and catering firms. Some free blacks in the North also founded small businesses and even newspapers.[5] They were able to get a head-start on the blacks who were essentially still enslaved by their lack of access to wealth accumulation, particularly when it came to owning their own land.[6]

As a result of Jim Crow laws that prohibited certain rights if a person was of African ancestry, many blacks were forced to be enterprising by establishing businesses that served their own people. Some of the businesses included black-owned hotels, insurance agencies, funeral homes and various retail stores. A "Black Wall Street" once existed in Greenwood, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Georgetown area of Washington D.C. was known for its affluent black professionals during segregation. In fact, the level of business ownership among blacks was the highest during the era of legal segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made many black-owned businesses suffer because of their inability to compete with white-owned establishments.

History of college education

During the American Civil War in the 1860s, organizations like the American Missionary Association, which had sponsored elementary schools for Southern blacks, established some of the first historically black colleges and universities. These include Fisk University, founded in 1866; Hampton University, Howard University, Spelman College and Morehouse College.[7] Those who attended these schools, as well as such other black colleges as Hampton University, Howard University, Morehouse College and Spelman College, were able to acquire skills and academic knowledge that put them in a distinctly different class.[8] Cheyney University, Lincoln University, PA founded in 1854, and Wilberforce University founded in 1856, were the only black colleges operational prior to the American Civil War; these schools were located in the North. However, there had been a few predominantly white colleges, such as Oberlin College in Ohio and Berea College in Kentucky, that had accepted black students even before the war, and their black graduates had been given a head start on economic stability.

Since the founding of the historically black schools, often attended originally by the children of skilled former slaves who had been able to establish businesses or farms in the post-war period, several generations of many families have often become alumni of Talladega, Spelman, Morehouse, Howard, Fisk, Tuskegee, Dillard, Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University), and Hampton. While today there are well over one hundred historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the US, these early institutions have consistently been the favorites for upper-class blacks.[9] Spelman College, Howard University, Hampton University and Morehouse College, in particular, have been considered by the Black intelligentsia to be the premier historically black colleges. Spelman College and Howard University are perennially listed in the top national rankings for HBCUs, and have the two largest endowments of all the HBCUs. Spelman is the only HBCU ranked as a US News & World Report Top 100 Liberal Arts College, as Howard is the first HBCU to be featured on the publication's National University Rankings.

However, since integration, many children of the black upper class have attended predominantly white colleges and universities.[10] "In the first time period covered by the scholars, black colleges were attracting significant numbers of students from professional, middle-class black families [these people] are now the students who are cherry-picked by highly selective, prestigious institutions that weren’t looking for them in the 1970s", said Michael L. Lomax, president of the United Negro College Fund.[10]

A small number of free blacks during the 19th century were also admitted into private, predominately white institutions such as Harvard, Amherst and Oberlin College.[9]

Greek organizations

In 1904 Sigma Pi Phi fraternity, also known as the "Boule," was established as the first Greek-letter society for African Americans, admitting mainly those African-American men who had gained considerable respect within their chosen industries. Within the decade, undergraduate college students established fraternities and sororities as small, selective social groups that later developed an emphasis on scholarship and social activism.

Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity at Cornell University in 1906 was established as the first African-American intercollegiate fraternity. Today there are a total of nine historically black sororities and fraternities that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council, sometimes referred to as the "Divine Nine." These include Alpha Phi Alpha (1906), Alpha Kappa Alpha (1908), Kappa Alpha Psi (1911), Omega Psi Phi (1911), Delta Sigma Theta (1913), Phi Beta Sigma (1914), Zeta Phi Beta (1920), Sigma Gamma Rho (1922), and Iota Phi Theta (1963).

Some argue that historically black Greek organizations differ from those that are traditionally all-white, because of their importance to blacks long after they have left their respective colleges and universities.[11] Graham said in his book Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class that these sororities and fraternities "are a lasting identity, a circle of lifetime friends, a base for future political and civic activism".[11]

Social and family organizations

Over the years, the black upper class has also founded numerous other organizations that allow them to socialize, build networks and get involved in communities.

One of the most notable is Jack and Jill of America, Inc., a mothers' club for African-American women founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1938. It was created by a group of middle and upper middle class mothers who wanted to bring their children together to experience a variety of educational, social and cultural opportunities, which, due to segregation and racism, were not otherwise readily available to African-American children, regardless of the socio-economic status of their parents.[12] Today there are around 218 chapters across the US and the world. About 30,000 parents and children participate through 9,500 mothers who hold membership.[12] Separated into age groups, children attend monthly activities extensively planned by the mothers of that age group, which may include philanthropic endeavors, community service, pool parties, ski weekends, theater, museums, lectures, and college tours. Membership is by invitation only and, even then, not guaranteed due to the extensive candidate selection process, which may last a year or longer and may include a vote by existing members. Membership is limited to mothers of children between the ages of 2-19. Annual costs of membership, including dues and activity fees, may easily reach thousands of dollars.

The National Smart Set is a private social club founded in 1937 in Washington, DC. This group provides a respite to African-American women who are leaders in their professions and, often, leaders of other respected and notable clubs and organizations. There are 700 members in 26 chapters. Each of the 26 local chapters provides philanthropic services and financial support to causes within the geographic region. At the national level, the organization donates to member-agreed causes including the MLK Memorial, Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Lupus Foundation and the Hampton University Proton Therapy Institute to name a few. Membership to the National Smart is by invitation and the organization seeks to contain its size to ensure that members develop and nurture nation-wide bonds and relationships.

National Tots and Teens, Incorporated is another well-noted family organization. It is unique in that fathers hold membership with mothers; single father-headed households are eligible for membership. Tots and Teens was founded by Geraldine Jacoway-Ross of Los Angeles, California in May 1952. In 1953 its second chapter was organized in Baltimore, Maryland.[13] Ross wanted to expose her daughter and other youths to experiences they would not otherwise be able to receive in the segregated and troubled society of that time. Tots and Teens holds a variety of activities for youth and parents such as ski trips, debutante cotillions, volunteer projects, and cultural events. Membership requires two families for sponsorship and the first year the family is viewed as a prospective member without full membership status.

Twigs, Incorporated was founded by Clara J. Bostic in Yeadon (Philadelphia) in 1948 as "an association whose objective is to encourage and foster mental, physical, social and cultural development of the children who are members." The organization is national in scope and sponsors a wide variety of activities. It has sponsored ACT/SAT prep sessions, book fairs geared toward African-American children, and leadership development for Twigs youth groups. Twigs has sponsored an annual scholarship competition through its chapters for community youth graduating from high school and continuing their education at four-year institutions. The organization has an archival repository housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.[14][15]

The 100 Black Men of America was founded in 1963 in New York City. The organization has chapters across the US and internationally, and is primarily composed of college-degreed black men. Its primary mission is to improve the quality of life within their communities and enhance educational and economic opportunities for all African-Americans. It currently has over 10,000 members.[16]

The National Coalition of 100 Black Women was founded in 1970 in New York City. The organization has chapters across the US and its membership is primarily composed of black women who have college degrees. It advocates on behalf of black women and girls, as well as promotes leadership development and gender equity in health, education, and economic empowerment.[17]

The LINKS, Incorporated, founded in 1946, is a social service organization that requires each member to accumulate many volunteer hours. It is known for numerous annual social activities, including debutante cotillions, fashion show luncheons, auctions and balls.[18] Women interested in joining any of the local chapters must be nominated by a current member.[19] Members include philanthropists, college presidents, judges, doctors, bankers, lawyers, executives, educators or the wives of well-known public figures.[20] There are currently about 12,000 members in 273 chapters in 42 states.[21]

The Girl Friends®, Incorporated is one of the oldest and most highly respected social organizations of African American women in the United States. It was founded in 1927 during the Harlem Renaissance, by a small group of close friends. The organization remains true to its fundamental tenet to foster friendship and now includes more than 1,700 members and 47 chapters in cities across the country. Although the original concept was purely social, over the years, The Girl Friends®, Incorporated has expanded its purpose to include charitable and cultural activities. In 1989, the Girl Friends Fund founded a separate 501(c)3 organization to provide financial assistance to students countrywide.[22]

Other prominent women's groups include the Chums, Inc.; Knights of Peter Claver, Inc. Ladies Auxiliary; Continental Societies, Inc.; the Drifters, Inc.; the CARATS, Incorporated; the Moles, Inc.; the Pierians; the Carousels; Top Ladies of Distinction (TLOD); the National Smart Set; The National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women's Club, Inc.; National Women of Achievement, Inc.; and the Northeasterners.

A few organizations have been founded specifically for upper class black men. Some of these include the Sigma Pi Phi Boule, the Comus Social Club, the Reveille Club, the Hellians (Washington, DC; Baltimore, Maryland; and Jackson, Mississippi), the Chesterfield Club of Selma, Alabama[23] the Thebans, the Tux Club, the Consorts, Bachelor-Benedict Club,[24] the National Association of Guardsmen,[25] and the El Dorado Club of Houston, Texas [26]

Home ownership rates

It is estimated that 80 percent of upper-class blacks own their own homes.[27] This is compared to 66 percent of those earning more than $50,000 and 52 percent of those who earn between $30,000 and $49,999 in income.[27]

Famous black business districts during segregation

The following are a few black business districts, areas, and cities that swelled with success during the era of legal segregation, which also contributed to the rise of the African-American upper class.[28]

  • U Street, NW in Washington, D.C.
  • "Black Wall Street" in Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • "Sweet" Auburn Avenue in Atlanta, Georgia
  • Harlem, New York
  • South side of Chicago, Illinois
  • Central Avenue, Los Angeles
  • "The Deuce" in Richmond, Virginia
  • Black Bottom/Paradise Valley in Detroit, Michigan
  • "Black Wall Street" in Durham, North Carolina
  • Indiana Avenue, Indianapolis, Indiana
  • Black Business District, Walnut Street, Louisville Kentucky[29][30]

See also


  1. Lacy, K. (2007). Blue-chip Black: race, class, and status in the new Black middle class. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, p. 41.
  2. Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus. Boston, MA: Pearson. ISBN 0-205-41365-X.
  3. Lacy (2007), p. 4.
  4. Frazier, E (1997). Black Bourgeoisie. New York, NY: Free Press Paperbacks, p. 14.
  5. Frazier (1997), p. 33.
  6. Frazier (1997), p. 30.
  7. Graham (2000), p. 9.
  8. Graham, L. (2000); Howard University, considered among the Black Intelligentsia to be the premier historically black college or university (HBCU) of its day was founded just two years after the close of the Civil War in 1867. Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, p. 10.
  9. Graham (2000), p. 10.
  10. Scott Jaschik. "Changing Times for Black Colleges".
  11. Graham (2000), p. 85.
  12. Graham (2000), p. 22.
  13. The Afro-American National Edition, Baltimore, Maryland, p. 12.
  14. "Description: Twigs, Inc. North Montgomery County (Pa.) Chapter records".
  15. "The Relevance of African American Civic Organizations for Young People in the 21st Century".
  16. "100 Black Men of America, Inc". Archived from the original on 2015-12-13. Retrieved 2015-11-14.
  17. "National Coalition of 100 Black Women".
  18. Graham (2000), p. 103.
  19. Graham (2000), p. 109.
  20. Graham (2000), p. 105.
  21. About the Links, Inc. Archived 2008-05-16 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved April 17, 2008, from The Links, Incorporated Web site.
  22. Retrieved April 2016 from The History of The Girl Friends®, Incorporated, Cheryl Whiteman Brooks, National Librarian/Historian
  23. The Selma Times Journal.
  24. Bachelor-Benedict Club
  25. Graham (2000), p. 128.
  27. Lacy (2007), p. 37.
  28. Based on research found in the Library of Congress, the History Center in Atlanta; and the Apex Museum in Atlanta, Georgia along with archives in various historical societies.
  29. "The Encyclopedia of Louisville".
  30. "A Self-Guided Tour of Louisville's Civil Rights History".
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