When Howard University bought the ailing Harambee House hotel for $1.3 million last week, I sent up a special cheer. Not just because the nation's largest black-owned hotel was remaining in minority hands -- although that's a good omen. But because hotels strike a peculiar emotional chord among blacks. Thirty years ago, a person could leave Washington heading South and travel hundreds of miles before finding a place to lay his head or eat a meal. The civil rights revolution erased that gross injustice, of course, and Holiday Inns and Statlers from coast to coast banked black dollars as readily as white ones.
But the legislation could not or did not change what blacks should have been doing all along -- owning their own. Minority ownership was behind the federal Economic Development Administration's action in helping open the Harambee House in the first place, even though that dream went up on smoke, partly due to bad management and a series of financial disasters. Howard University has the resources to better assure the Harambee's success and plans to use the hotel to establish a hotel administration program within its school of business and public administration and train students in hotel management and operation.
While once Howard might have turned out business graduates with no experience running and managing an establishment, ownership of the hotel changes that. Now Howard will move students into the hotel's management where they can receive practical training. This means that in Washington and cities across America, graduates can fan out and be able to run and manage hotels, which are expected to be growth industries in many cities in the 1980's. The Economic Development Administration feels good about the deal with Howard because the hotel will still, it says, serve a somewhat rundown section of the city. A junkyard across the street was the Harambee's most telling view and it was a symbol that the new edifice had not revitalized even the block on which it was located. But I don't think minority ownership should be confined to down-on-their-luck neighborhoods. In that, EDA misses the point. For that matter, I would have preferred to have seen Howard purchase the Hilton instead; it's bigger and better located. But no matter, the issue is ownership. And the 160-room Harambee now should be able to avoid the management and funding problems that plagued its original owner, Ed Murphy.
There are those who argue that Howard's ownership technically is not minority ownership because a large share of Howard's budget comes from the federal government. But a lot of black tax dollars go into the federal till and Howard is as deserving of them as Notre Dame or UCLA.
While the government is making a clean break with Harambee House, which will become the Howard Inn, the Reagan administration has proposed making a clean break with EDA. It would be a shame to wipe this agency off the books because its activities, which include promotion of minority ownership, definitely should be the wave of the future. I talked with the Rev. Jesse Jackson about Ronald Reagan's economic program, especially his supply side economic theory, last week. Jackson thinks the $125-billion annual black consumer market should be used as leverage to demand reciprocity for what blacks consume. In other words, if blacks consume 25 percent of a certain soft drink in a given geographical area there should be a certain percentage of black wholesalerships and distributorships. "If there is no equity or parity, we must practice selective withdrawal of our money. We demand our share by directing our dollars," he said. "We need a development formula to become part of the supply (production) side."
But I think Howard University already has the development formula. It's pretty simple if you think about it. Become an owner, rather than a consumer, to move from the demand (consumer) side to the supply (production) side.
It's fine to demand reciprocity as a more intelligent use of black consumer power, but that's not the same as purchasing stocks, bonds and land. The dramatic shrinkage of black land ownership shows that the movement has been backward not forward. In 1910, black farmers owner 15 million acres of land. Now the total is four million acres, and black-owned land is being lost at the rate of about 500,000 acres annually. If this trend continues, by 1990, blacks will own very little land.
So while Jackson's proposal may be secondary solution, Howard University's is the real answer. While it is logical to use existing consumer buying power to insist that black dollars count for more than swigs of Coca-Cola or buying Jackson Five records, it is even more logical to produce the bottles, to own the record company.
For consumer buying won't purchase respect or power in America; one can only own one's way into respectability. It's a lesson most immigrants learn as soon as they get off the boat and the fact that our forebears came as slaves, not immigrants, makes the case more pressing, not less.
So Howard University's new acquisitionis a small step in the right direction. It has the potential not only to move the university, but some of its graduates and students from the demand side to the supply side. While I certainly don't buy the Gospel according to Ronald Reagan's new think-new speak religionists, it is clear that only more actions likeHoward's sends to this government the message that they are not dealing with