Black Wall Street Festival Strives for Economic Justice in North St. Louis

Jun 24, 2022 at 10:35 am
click to enlarge The Black Wall Street Festival returns tomorrow for its sixth iteration. - Courtesy #BlackWallStreet314
Courtesy #BlackWallStreet314
The Black Wall Street Festival returns tomorrow for its sixth iteration.

The Black Wall Street Festival returns tomorrow for its sixth iteration. From 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, June 25, #BlackWallStreet314 will bring a sprawling collection of local vendors, musicians and other festivities to stretch along Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. from Skinker Boulevard to Hamilton Avenue. Highlights of the day will include the Young-Black-Gifted Talent Show, a car show and a scholarship giveaway.

But for lead organizer Farrakhan Shegog, the most exciting part will be unveiling the group’s plan to undertake a $9 million community development project in Wellston, starting with 5955 Martin Luther King Drive, a single-family home.

At first glance, 5955 Martin Luther King Drive doesn’t seem like much. The lot itself is completely vacant, save for a spread of thin grass struggling to stay green in the summer heat. An abandoned nightclub sits across the street from it, one empty lot down from an abandoned JCPenney. In fact, almost every structure surrounding the address has been reclaimed by the city of St. Louis.

To Shegog and his team, however, the lot represents hope, a step toward accomplishing #BlackWallStreet314's goals.

#BlackWallStreet314 is a joint campaign by Young Voices with Action, a group dedicated to empowering youth in the St. Louis region through community service, and Easton Development Corporation. The inaugural festival took place seven years ago in a backyard in Wellston but has since grown to accommodate nearly 5,000 people, according to their website.

While the movement has grown in size, its objective remains the same: to restore and revitalize the Wellston Loop, a once-bustling economic corridor during the ’50s and ’60s that declined with the advent of urban renewal and white flight in the ’70s. Its ultimate goal is to reestablish a business district there that parallels the Delmar Loop.

“When we think about Black Wall Street, we think about the ability of young people to be able to own and control the most vital asset within their communities, which is homeownership and entrepreneurship,” says Shegog, who serves as president of Young Voices with Action. “This Black Wall Street Festival showcases that these young people are capable, and committed, and competent enough to not just generate their own wealth, but to sustain and safeguard the wealth that they're building within their own community.”

For the past three decades, the Wellston Loop has been largely underfunded and neglected by both the private and public sector. Although the government’s cooperation is vital to the financial ability of Black WallStreet to implement its plans, Shegog emphasized the necessity of empowering young people to take the fate of their community into their own hands.

“Historically, government has never looked out for the financial freedom of African Americans as they’ve done other races,” he says. “We cannot depend on government, or charity or some benevolent white philanthropic group to save us out of poverty, save us out of failing school, save us out of folks losing their homes and business declining.”

Shegog also stressed the institutional nature of the change Black Wall Street is trying to implement. Simply establishing a business in Wellston wouldn’t change the fact that one incident could cost an entrepreneur their livelihood without holistic support from the institutions that supplement economic development, such as housing, education and public safety.

Aniya Betts, ambassador supervisor to Young Voices with Action, echoed this sentiment.

“This is the institution that we need to develop and build to produce young people that want to be financially free,” she says.

To make this vision a reality, Black Wall Street has worked to amass a coalition of local vendors and sponsors dedicated to the cause. They have also garnered the support of various local politicians and state representatives — Representative Cori Bush and Governor Mike Parson are both scheduled to make appearances tomorrow.

Saturday’s event is the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year, and the funds raised will be put towards purchasing and developing the vacant lots that line Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. and bolstering the ability of YWVA to serve both its young members and its community. The campaign also aims to provide business education to entrepreneurs and young adults alike.
Shegog emphasized that at the core of Black Wall Street is a desire to better the community and reduce reliance on external factors to do so. Funding is vital to the materialization of this vision.

“All of these vacant lots, minus the one that we purchased from our government, are owned by the city of St. Louis. We’re getting these issues off of the city’s hand and we’re developing them, and putting these properties back onto the tax roll,” Shegog said. “We need money to make this project happen.”