Promises and Disruptions in Black Entrepreneurship: A Narrative Reframing of The Water-melon Market at Charleston, S.C., 1866

Disruptions of African American attempts toward economic self-sufficiency in the Post-Civil War era have been widely documented in the ledgers of American history. These include the promise of forty acres and a mule for ex-slaves to continue farming, which they never received; the “Compromise” speech by Booker T. Washington at the 1896 Atlanta Exposition which proposed that blacks would focus on vocational training and wealth creation rather than on social activism and higher education, which angered white Southerners and may have inspired the 1906 Atlanta Massacre; and, the 1921 Tulsa Massacre where whites burned the thriving business enclave known as Black Wall Street to the ground. To such examples of explicit and violent disruption, one of insidious, narrative disruption may be added. This presentation is a narrative analysis of seven images and captions depicting blacks and watermelons, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper from 1866 to 1890. The first image, The Water-melon Market at Charleston, S.C., 1866, suggested the promise of black enterprise, but subsequent images degenerated into blacks being the targets of ridicule and then becoming less visible in the watermelon trade. The Charleston Market image is significant because it is a rare example of blacks appearing to negotiate with whites and standing their ground in business transactions. It represents a “promise” of possibilities for ex-slaves with a crop brought from Africa to America and grown in garden patches on plantations. Black growers dominated the market and shipped watermelons to northern cities. The narrative disruption continues beyond Frank Leslie’s images to the postcard blitz of 1900s where the most vulgar depictions of blacks and watermelons were disseminated and likely resulted in a conscious separation by blacks from watermelons in public.