How Are Black Americans Progressing?

The series looks at how far we've come as a society and what we can learn from the past to make even more progress.

How Are Black Americans Progressing?

Ten years ago, when I lived in Washington, D.C., cranes were all over the northern banks Anacostia River. Recently, I returned to the city and the cranes had been replaced by high-rises. New restaurants have water views thanks to gleaming riverside walkways. Plastic bags have been removed from the river, which was once littered with trash.

The economic progress of a city is often referred to as progress. Washington's Black Population has shrunk in many parts of the city. The nickname "Chocolate City" is no longer appropriate. The last predominantly Black area of this once predominantly Black town is now east of the river, in Wards 7 & 8, with neighborhoods such as Anacostia and Congress Heights, and Barry Farm.

I was in Anacostia, with members of Headway's team. We were right next to 11th Street Bridge Park where Megan Kimble had written about in Headway's August 2022 issue. Residents spoke with us about changes in their neighborhood. These changes are often summarized into one word: gentrification. Over the last few months, we have heard from hundreds residents and visitors, including newcomers. We also met many more at the Anacostia Riverfront Festival where we had a booth set up to create a community time capsule.


Black Americans face a complicated path to progress. They are lagging behind in many major socioeconomic indicators, such as homeownership rates, life expectancy and access to banking. Headway's most prominent topic has been housing insecurity. Black Americans make up 40 percent of all those who are homeless in the U.S. despite only being 13 percent of the total population. This is not a mystery: it is the result of decades-long decisions that have limited Black Americans' progress towards equity.

For many Blacks in Anacostia those high-rises that are visible across the newly lit-up river represent a dangerous signal. Rents and taxes continue to rise, while the number of Black homebuyers in the area continues to decline. Anacostia is not without its problems, but more investment could make a difference. Many residents appreciate better funded schools and parks. The encroaching luxury building and the long-promised Bridge Park might also cause displacement, just as they have elsewhere in the city during the last several years.

We searched for evidence of economic progress for Black Americans in Anacostia. These included Black-owned businesses that were thriving, Black homeowners with high rates of wealth accumulation, and Black communities that had thriving economies. Our investigation brought us to Greenwood, a neighborhood in Tulsa that was once the financial hub of the African American Community, but which white people destroyed 102 years earlier in the Tulsa Race Massacre. Victor Luckerson wrote in Headway, after conducting more than 200 interviews to write his book on Tulsa. He described how group economics, or Black Americans supporting the local Black economy, fueled Greenwood's entrepreneurial success.

We're starting an investigation called Progress, Revisited. We're looking at the historical moments that have led to progress in racial equality for Black Americans, dating back to the early 20th century. And we are anticipating their lessons and legacy today. The Ira A. Lipman Centre for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights at Columbia University commissioned scholars to examine the persistence of racial inequalities in five key aspects of American life: economics, education and health care, criminal and civil justice, and housing. We are looking at moments in which Black communities have made significant progress toward racial equality, and we ask how we can build on those achievements or learn from them today. I created a quiz in my introduction to this series to measure how far we've come and how much further we still have to go.


Du Bois presented a set of iconic images at the Paris World's Fair of 1900, including a collection of photographs and unique data visualizations. Du Bois wanted to replace the image of Black Americans as slaves with a vision for a Black nation that was growing in strength and health despite white supremacy's extraordinary resistance.

Du Bois understood the concept of progress as a generational phenomenon. He died the night before the March on Washington, in 1963. He asked questions that resonated with me in my conversations with older adults and parents at the Riverfront Festival of Anacostia, and I invite you to join us and reflect: Are we better off than our forefathers? Were we able to build on their ideas and learn from their mistakes? What kind of future do we want to prepare the next generation for?