Black History Month: 20th Century Lynchings Still Costing Blacks Millions

Black History Month: 20th Century Lynchings Still Costing Blacks Millions

(Image: Reprinted with permission from Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America by William H. Frey—Brookings Press, 2014)

That difference in wealth is huge.  The Federal Reserve Consumer Finance Survey found the median white family had a net worth of $134,000 in 2013, while that of blacks was just $11,000.  That means for every $1 of wealth white families had, black families had just 12 cents.

Some historians wonder what would have happened if blacks did not feel they had to abandon the oppression of the South and move North.  What would have happened if we stayed with the land?

“You’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars,” says Stevenson. “These folks were situated on some of the most fertile real estate in America.  The reason it’s called the Black Belt is because the soil was so fertile.  In addition, some of these places were convenient for commercial shipping and provided the possibilities of an agrarian economy that could support itself and create wealth,” he adds.

Isabel Wilkerson, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author of New York Times best-seller The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, says lynching also took an economic toll because many of the targets were the black community’s best and brightest.

“Lynchings were not just for things like talking to a white woman or some of the other reasons we commonly associate with these killings.  Many people were lynched because they were seen as getting out of their place in the caste system–people who were experiencing business success,”  Wilkerson says.  “There’s an economic consequence to the loss of human capital.”

Reverse Migration:  Going Home Stronger and Wiser
The North is no longer viewed as ‘the land of opportunity’ for blacks, and over the past two decades, demographers say there has been a big migration of African Americans back to the South.  Census Bureau data finds that 55% of blacks in the U.S. now live in the South.

“It’s a good thing for this younger generation of blacks to be moving to areas where there’s prosperity and more jobs created to welcome them and provide them with opportunities,” says William Frey, internationally recognized demographer, author of Diversity Explosion, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

“It’s also good for the South to be able to overcome an unfortunate history and now attract blacks striving for upward mobility,” he adds.

Still, blacks still continue to face barriers such as predatory lending practices when it comes to applying for loans and other racially based factors that make it hard to find financial footing.

“If we’re serious about truth and reconciliation, we’ve got to begin by first telling the truth of what happened in the reign of terror that was taking place in the South during the period of lynching and the economic consequences,” says Stevenson. “Hopefully people will feel some need to reconcile themselves with history and do something responsive, even at a policy level to make restitution.”

As blacks continue to face outside obstacles to building wealth, the answers needed to move forward may be found in the stories and struggles of those who faced unimaginable oppression.  As Wilkerson puts it, “The Great Migration is a story of 6 million people walking away from the caste system of the South against incredible odds.  They made individual commitments to lift themselves up economically and collectively created a middle-class that was not possible in the South.  We often forget that’s what we’re made of and how much grit that really took.”