Black Economic Internationalism in the 20th Century

AHA Session 274
Sunday, January 7, 2018: 9:00 AM-10:30 AM
Virginia Suite C (Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level)
Brenna Wynn Greer, Wellesley College
Robert Trent Vinson, College of William and Mary

Session Abstract

Over the last several decades, scholars across the disciplines have produced a multitude of work on international trade and multinational corporations. More recently, business historians like Stephanie Decker and others at the Harvard Business School have called for a closer look at the ways global business has affected the ‘global South’ and Africa in particular. Still, surprisingly little research has been done on international black business. Meanwhile, black studies scholars have created whole fields of study devoted to studying the connections between people of African descent on both sides of the Atlantic. In doing so, they have revealed the significance of political, social, and cultural exchange across the African diaspora. Less attention, however, has been paid to the economic aspects of black internationalism.

This panel foregrounds black business and other kinds of black commercial activity within the history of black internationalism and the global political economy more broadly. In doing so, it illuminates business’ often overlooked role facilitating diasporic connections and within international black politics in the twentieth-century.

In the United States, black business often went hand-in-hand with the spread of black (inter)nationalism. In his paper on Rev. Albert B. Cleage and the Shrine of the Black Madonna, for example, Adam Ewing examines how Cleage and others promoted a Black Christian Nationalism through pursuing a series of business ventures, including a bookstore and cultural center, a cooperative market, a farm, and a school. Ewing’s paper, which promises to pay particular attention to the capitalization of diaspora and the consumption of popular pan-Africanism, also illuminates the connections between race consciousness, Christianity, and entrepreneurism present in much of black politics throughout the long twentieth-century.

In addition to playing a significant role in the spread of a black international consciousness in the United States, business also served as a catalyst for a number of black American ventures involving Africans. The last two papers examine attempts by black Americans to promote black entrepreneurship and what scholars have termed a New South form of economic development in Africa during the 1960s. Brandon K. Winford’s paper on John Harvey Wheeler examines Wheeler’s participation in the United States-South Africa Leader Exchange Program (USSALEP), a private non-profit organization funded by individual and corporate donors from the U.S. and South Africa. Through an examination of Wheeler’s efforts, aided by USSALEP, promoting black business as means of liberating black South Africans from apartheid, Winford’s paper complicates our notions of anti-apartheid activism and black internationalist movements more broadly as necessarily left-leaning and anti-capitalist.

The links between black internationalism and black business also appear in the final panel paper by Jessica Ann Levy, “The Business of Diaspora.” Building on Winford’s discussion of USSALEP, Levy shows how following independence, the American government and American corporations promoted black empowerment, including skills-training programs and black entrepreneurship, in East and West Africa through their support for Rev. Leon H. Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Centers. In doing so, Levy shows how the expansion of American capitalism on the continent aided and benefited from black economic internationalism.

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