Returning to the South
by Tiffany Brown, Chordata Capital
Kate and I are clear that our core focus for Chordata Capital is to address the racial wealth divide. How could we not?! Kate and I first crossed paths at Resource Generation, when I was the Retreat Director. Nearly every Resource Generation conference begins with some form of a timeline activity of the racist history of wealth accumulation in this country, where people walk the room locating points of where their family accumulated wealth adjacent to a counterpoint of a racist law (like the Homestead Act). It’s only natural that we would build an investment advisory practice that is rooted in a commitment to racial and economic justice. Our work with our clients seeks to repair the damage done (actively or passively) by the accumulation of wealth, through divestment from the extractive economy and then reinvestment into more restorative options. We are shifting the orientation of investment from transactional to relational. I know using words like “relational” or “restorative” can be performative tools to exhibit woke-ness, but I want to peel back the veneer, and tell you about how we roll out investment as relationship: We took a trip to the deep South, and did it in community.
I flew down to Mobile, AL in late April to do a tour of the South with my dear friends, Jessica Norwood (Runway Project) & Lynne Hoey (Candide Group). I’ve known Jessica for over a decade, and the three of us were RSF Integrated Capital Fellows 2017/2018. Each of us address the racial wealth divide through finance. One of our primary goals was to strengthen our relationship with Hope Federal Credit Union, which services the unbanked and underbanked in the Mississippi Delta.
Our plan was to start in Africatown, a neighborhood near Jessica’s hometown of Mobile, and then continue on to Jackson, MS. We’d end with a tour of the Mississippi Delta led by our colleagues at Hope Credit Union. Through one lens, we were 3 women in finance (Black, mixed-race, and white), doing due diligence on a financial institution, Hope Credit Union. The spirit of our trip was more about 3 women in finance working collaboratively to further our longer term vision, which is to partner with institutions that are working for racial and economic justice to address the U.S.’s racial wealth divide. To work towards repair. This doesn’t happen every day in finance.
The first stop was Africatown, a community of descendants of current day Benin, who were brought over on the slave ship Clotilda in 1860, 52 years after the slave trade was outlawed. The illegal operation was financed by Timothy Meaher, a wealthy Mobile landowner, whose family still owns land and businesses in the Mobile region under various names. The people of Africatown are so close to their diasporic roots. The church has a marker outside that notes the founders’ English names, followed by their tribal names, and which tribe they came from. The Africatown cemetery is scattered with offerings from their practice of Vodou, another line of connection to a Mother Land. The descendants of Africatown remember the home they were stolen from.
Jessica and her father organized a ritual for us along the riverbank, which is now dominated by timber and paper mill buildings, whose smoke stacks have poisoned the Africatown community for decades. On a little section of land, we stood together and sent out prayers for the souls of Africatown to find their way back home to Benin. Jessica shared with us that the people of Africatown, once emancipated, fought for repatriation to Benin but were foiled in their attempts, namely by Meaher withholding earnings.
The experience I had in my body was that I was walking through the timeline activity, in real time, on the soil where the violence took place. I was witnessing the consequences of institutionalized exploitation, but also the resistance, and all under the guidance of our ancestors.
We drove past a smaller part of Africatown, called Lewis Quarters. It felt like a last stronghold of community amidst the timber and paper mills. We saw the school Africatown established, called the “Mobile County Training School.” They weren’t allowed to simply call it a school, it had to be qualified with “training” because that would legitimize that they were receiving the same caliber of education as white students. What I was synthesizing was that people were illegally stolen from their home with no consequence. Then they were legally enslaved in the U.S. for 3 years, and unofficially for longer. They worked on plantations for meager wages, that could never amass to the amount of wealth needed to get back home. To add insult to injury, their new home became a dumping ground for toxins from the paper industry, so they were (and currently are) poisoned by the primary industry that could offer jobs. And then their children attend a “training school,” to cement that they could only go so far in a country that stole them, wouldn’t let them go home, and definitely wouldn’t let them succeed here. In fact, the white powers that be would still like to figure out how to steal their labor and life as the nation amasses wealth at their expense.
The next day we went to the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, which told the same story, but covering a greater period of time and geographic area. It was the story of stolen people, enslavement for free labor, the premature withdrawal of federal troops after emancipation and lack of enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Then it was Black Codes that could arrest and punish Blacks who didn’t have proof of employment, which led to convict leasing. In 1898, 73% of Alabama state revenue came from convict leasing to the lumber mills and for road maintenance. Even after 35 years of a supposed emancipation, Blacks were still forced into free labor, especially in the South.
The museum illustrated the reign of informal and institutional terror after Emancipation to keep Black people in their place: There were 4,000 documented lynchings between 1880 and 1940. The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has an exhibit of gallon size glass jars filled with soil, varying in shades from a light cocoa to a clay red, collected from the grounds of each lynching site. 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 sanctioned violence, which is hardly nationally acknowledged and for which there has not been an apology.
In the museum, I learned of several laws that sought to block Blacks out of the economic and political systems, and this is on top of all of the ones we already know of like segregation of schools (which didn’t end until1954), or preventing Blacks from voting until 1965. There was Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) that barred state enforcement of the 14th Amendment, legalizing discriminatory practices and preventing African American homeownership. Banks and racist deed covenants also worked against Blacks to prevent Black homeownership (this practice of redlining still happens). There was the attempt in 1939 with Lane v. Wilson to allow a 12 day one-time voter registration window for black citizens, and if you didn’t register in that window you’d be permanently barred, and then Gomillion v. Lightfoot (1963) attempted to deprive Blacks of political power by shady boundary creation for electoral districts.
The museum ended with a video installation where you could pick up a phone and see the video of a Black prisoner sharing their story with you about why they were incarcerated. The development of the prison industrial complex helped the nation move from convict leasing under the guise of a “war on drugs” or being “tough on crime,” and still profits from free Black labor. The start of the story was stolen people, and the end was their incarceration, all under the Constitution and a promise of equality and freedom.
In finance, particularly in working with people with inherited wealth, you see the product of compounding returns. This is how the wealth was amassed, and white people had a serious head start: A white ancestor invested in a company or multiple companies and those increased in value over time, and the gains from sales were used to buy more companies and assets, and the market has gone up and up and up.
But this trip had me thinking about compounding negative returns, and the toll this takes on individuals, on community, on spirit.
What happens when you can’t buy into an economic system that governs your existence, and you are foiled at every attempt to participate, through laws or theft or terror (like the Burning of Black Wall Street)?
JACKSON AND THE DELTA
In Jackson we experienced these compounding negative returns, physically and anecdotally. The predominantly Black parts of town, like West Jackson, have such disinvestment that you can’t drive in a straight line on roads covered in threatening potholes. The schools are F-rated, and the community conversation is about the elimination of blighted homes. As an outsider, these all felt like signs of deeper issues that bred this level of systemic disrepair.
We headed into the Mississippi Delta and saw this lack of investment in ghost towns, that clearly still have inhabitants, but no longer have a “main street.” We saw the shells of old business districts. These are towns that have unemployment rates in the teens, as compared to a national average which is now about 3.6%. We heard stories of slum lords renting houses with such unsafe electrical wiring that a woman’s house burned to the ground on 3 occasions. Each time the slum lord would just move her to another negligently-wired home. And there was no recourse. I felt like I was seeing the blowback from a white South not getting its way. First it was Emancipation and then integration and then the Voting Rights Act. The white South is engaged in an energetic game of chicken with the Black population, but waiting for us to swerve into extinction.
The South really drives the point home that we have a past that we need to face. I appreciate that they don’t sugar coat it like they do in the North. But what I appreciate even more is the multi-prong resistance I was able to see in the South through the work of the Cooperative Community of New West Jackson (CO-OP NWJ), Cooperation Jackson, Hope Credit Union, Higher Purpose, Co and the Hawkin’s Project in Shaw, MS.
We stayed in West Jackson and learned about CO-OP NWJ through two hours of sharing stories with its co-founder Nia Umoja. Their work started in Jackson 5 years ago, and they have dozens of houses on 8 contiguous blocks. Nia and her community entered into Jackson at a politically ripe moment, and used grassroots organizing to build relationship and trust, in order to start to develop a Black sovereign community that could resource itself. The community identified 3 priority needs 1) to make money 2) to clean up (people couldn’t even get property insurance due to overgrowth of trees and lots were literal dumping grounds because of lack of services to their community) 3) to have something for the youth to do. Now they have a few thriving Air bnb rentals, which resource the community and the cooperative. They also have a garden, a CSA, and a fiber arts studio. A bookstore filled with DIY books, a grocery for staples, and a cafe run by the neighborhood youth are all in the works. CO-OP NWJ came out of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement’s Jackson-Kush Plan, a strategic coordinated push to build Black political power in Jackson. While we didn’t have the opportunity to spend time with them, Kali Akuno, who authored the Jackson-Kush plan, leads Cooperation Jackson, another organization building the Solidarity Economy in Jackson.
HOPE FEDERAL CREDIT UNION
We were able to meet many of the staff at Hope Credit Union, including their founding CEO, Bill Bynum. Hope opens branches in otherwise neglected towns in the Delta so that people can deposit their paychecks and avoid the services of predatory check cashing businesses. They invest in thoughtful development projects to get communities into safe and affordable housing, help members achieve homeownership through mortgage lending, address food insecurity, and are even helping Hope members in Shaw, MS with their strategic plan for economic development. Hope has also partnered with a local high school to open a branch on campus and offer an academy style training program, where youth get financial literacy and mentorship. Hope coordinated our tour of the Delta from Jackson, to Itta Bena through Indianola and up to Shaw. They are doing the typical work of a CDFI using new market tax credits and private public partnerships, but they are doing it in an a-typical way. We got to see the strength of relationships that Hope has in the community, and the depth of their commitment to meet the needs of their constituency.
HIGHER PURPOSE, CO.
Higher Purpose, Co gave us a mini tour of their work in Clarksdale, MS. You could tell there were more resources in the town as compared to some of the other Delta towns we saw, namely Clarksdale’s downtown. There were brightly colored flags with the faces of famous bluesmen attached to light posts. An international obsession with the Blues, and blues fanatic’s fantasies of finding their inner bluesmen in the Delta led to a strange influx of foreign investment. Cultural appropriation brought money into Clarksdale. Now, how can the community build and control their own wealth? Higher Purpose, Co. addresses the racial wealth gap and the need for building community wealth through supporting entrepreneurship, affordable housing/real estate acquisition and buying land. Right now over 80% of the entrepreneurs they fund through small business loans are Black women.
It was so powerful to spend time with the numerous people who generously shared their time and stories with us. I have a call this week with one of the women we met from Shaw, MS. I’m getting an update on how their project is going, and to check dates for Homecoming so I can hopefully return. They recently got their local highway named the “Hawkins Memorial Highway” to commemorate Andrew Hawkins. Hawkins was a Black man who illuminated the discriminatory practices in the allocation of resources, such as sewers, sidewalks, streetlights and paving in the town of Shaw. The white side of town was well-resourced while the Black side was not. Hawkins took the case all the way up to the Supreme Court. In the aftermath, 3 of his family members were killed, without any justice. Now the town wants to share this story of resistance, and is rolling out a series of panel discussions, a play, and a number of historical markers around the town. They want to have all the plans laid in time for Homecoming so that the community can celebrate the acknowledgement of Mr. Hawkins and this win. Spending time with the community of Shaw was the energetic bookend to our trip in the Delta. This Supreme Court case was less than 50 years ago — a past that’s still close.
I’ve had this feeling that when we talk about reparations, it’s like making the case that someone should address this, and I think the fingers are pointed at our government. But let’s get real, we’ve never seen anything lasting to support healing or any kind of retribution from this fresh racist history, and we’ve been told this history forever! In fact, it seems like we learn new horrible details and systemic racist adaptations all the time. The more we talk about reparations, the more we seem to distance ourselves from our individual agency. The language used to talk about reparations can feel so performative these days, and while I’m glad these conversations are happening, I find myself impatient. Heady arguments about the “why” are important, but they seem to stay in the realm of the head and not manifest. We need to connect to the heart, and to engage with our outrage at what this country and economy has done and continues to do. We must find tangible steps to address repair. Black people and the South have been waiting way too long.
One of my mentors told me that “the universe responds to passionate intent and unconflicted behavior.” We operate at this crossroads, where we can be a bunch of do-gooders telling each other what we want to hear or take a leap for alignment to shift the universe. I’m lucky to know a number of incredible people who give a lot, and yet their investment portfolios continue to grow because of the traditional investment approach. What if the mass accumulation of wealth, quantified in the value of all those ticker symbols (of a bunch of corporations that don’t further the wellbeing of Black people), was actually channeled into direct placement investments to support the self determination of Black entrepreneurs who are rooted in community? I don’t believe that corporations are going to solve the racial wealth gap, or do much of anything except continue to try to make profits and grow. People who have more than “enough” are well-positioned to take the risk and press pause on wealth accumulation for the greater good. Let’s not wait for the government to roll out its take on reparations. I want to see accredited investors who believe in the concept of reparations express this desire through investing in Black and Native communities. It’s projected that the median net wealth of Blacks will hit zero by 2053. My fear is the risk of what will happen if we don’t start to address the racial wealth divide and the spiritual repair needed in this country. It is within our control to create a demand for repair through our actions.