This article is the second of a two-part series by Tiffany Brown exploring the racial wealth divide across the Deep South.
The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama tells the story of stolen people, enslavement for free labor, the premature withdrawal of federal troops after Emancipation, and the lack of enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Back then, Black Codes legalized the arrest and punishment of Black people who didn’t have proof of employment, which led to convict leasing. In 1898, 73 percent of Alabama state revenue came from convict leasing to the lumber mills and for road maintenance. A full 35 years after Emancipation, Blacks were still being forced into free labor throughout the South.
In the museum, I learned of several laws that sought to block access by Black people to economic and political systems—on top of school segregation (which didn’t end until 1954) and the prohibition on Black voting until 1965. There was Shelley v. Kraemer (1948), for example, which barred state enforcement of the 14th Amendment, thereby legalizing discriminatory practices and preventing African American homeownership. Banks and racist deed covenants also worked to prevent Black homeownership (a practice called redlining, which persists today). There was the attempt in 1939 with Lane v. Wilson to allow a 12 day, one-time voter registration window for black citizens, after which those who didn’t register would be permanently barred. Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1963) attempted to deprive Blacks of political power by shady boundary creation for electoral districts.
The museum featured a video installation where you could pick up a phone and see video of a Black prisoner sharing their story of incarceration. The development of the prison industrial complex helped the nation perpetuate a form of convict leasing under the guise of the “war on drugs” and bring big profits to private corporations through free Black labor. The story that began with stolen people has become one of incarceration, all under the Constitution’s promise of equality and freedom.
An exhibit at the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), also in Montgomery, has an exhibit of gallon-sized glass jars filled with soil, varying in shades from a light cocoa to a clay red, collected from the grounds of various lynching sites. There were 4,000 documented lynchings between 1880 and 1940, part of the informal and institutional reign of terror to keep Black people in their place after Emancipation. There is also a deeply moving lynching memorial down the street that EJI spearheaded, where coffin-sized rectangular iron blocks hang from the ceiling. Both the museum and the memorial are truthful and tragic assertions of state-sanctioned violence, which our government has barely acknowledged and for which there has never been a formal apology.
In finance, those who work with people with inherited wealth can see the result of compounding returns. In this country, white people had a serious head start in amassing wealth. Although I was aware of this intellectually, my trip had me thinking about what happens when you can’t buy into an economic system that governs your existence, when you are foiled at every attempt to participate, through laws, theft, or terror. The toll this takes on individuals, on community, and on spirit could be described as compounding negative returns—and it must be remedied through intentional, positive community investment.
Tiffany Brown is a founding partner of Chordata Capital: Investment with a Backbone, investing with a focus on racial and economic justice to help repair the violent and extractive history of wealth accumulation in the US.
Photo: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson; The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which honors thousands of people killed in racist lynchings, stands next to the Justice and the Legacy Museum, in Montgomery, Alabama.