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  • Writer's pictureWes Hazard

History Throwback: To Be Black, In Brooklyn, And In Business at the turn of the 20th Century.

The Negro in Business in Greater New York - The Colored American Magazine Vol. X, No.3 (March, 1906)

Here we have an image captured from a 1906 profile of Edward Watkins, proprietor of the True Reformer Burial Association, located at 788 Fulton St. in Brooklyn. The piece gives a brief account of his upbringing, his arrival in New York, and his rise from being a barbershop bootblack to owning his own business (where his skill in advertising is particularly noted). While Watkins success and industry can be appreciated today it's also worth noting the way in which the circumstances of the time shaped the limits and the very idea of success. A large part of the profile is devoted to story which frames his greatest professional achievement as being called upon to attend to the body of a rich white man whose wealth is heralded by the fact that the house call was to a residence in "one of the wealthiest sections of Brooklyn" where Watkins knew "no colored people were in that section, even as servants." He made several hundred dollars for the work (in 1906 $$$) so get that money my man, but it's interesting to think about the height of success then vs. what a vision for community oriented co-operative business looks like now.

You can read the whole profile, and the entirety of the publication HERE (the Watkins profile is on PDF page 26 -scanned page 168-). I've had a chance to spend some time with this issue number and....I would highly recommend it. Included there are:


  • A weird (to modern ears) plea to Black Americans to fund the building of a monument to white abolitionists and statesmen who helped the anti-slavery cause.

  • An obituary/takedown of a Confederate general who ended up in the U.S. Congress and then fought in the Spanish American War and retired with US Army honors and benefits.

  • An exuberant celebration of the opportunities for Blacks in the Oklahoma Territory "What may be truthfully termed the Afro-American's paradise is the territory of Oklahoma..." / "In no section of the country have colored man had a wider opportunity for development; in no section have they used their opportunity to better account." Which, with historical hindsight reads as kind of chilling in light of the annihilating violence that we know is to come to Tulsa in 1921.

  • A moralizing, preachy, and all-around questionable poem called The Knocker's Philosophy.

  • Plus a whole lot more, and I haven't even cracked the other issues yet or learned nearly enough about what looks to be the very contentious history of the magazine.

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