Several months ago I heard a distinguished, older Black man, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Damon J. Keith, speak at an event and he made many profound statements. We were all taking notes, to refer to later for our own encouragement; and, we all rushed to get a copy of his latest book, Crusader for Justice (2014). One statement Judge Keith, himself a former janitor, made was this: “You are walking on floors you did not scrub and you’re going through doors you did not open. What you are doing now is scrubbing some floors and opening some doors for the next generation. We’ve got to leave a legacy.”
His point is well-taken. As Blacks we must embrace the concept of making generational sacrifices in order to leave a lasting legacy and to help build enduring wealth for our future. Our history teaches the lesson. Although the stories of the lives and familial relationships of Black slave and free communities are not as documented as we would like, we do know that many slave parents who managed to be released from slavery did not just go on their way without thought to the younger and future generations. As reported in Larry Koger’s book, Black Slaveowners: Free Black Slave Masters in South Carolina, 1790-1860 (1985), if one slave parent was freed, that parent along with the one still enslaved would work tirelessly and try to accumulate resources to “buy” their children and in so doing, give their children freedom.
The accumulation of sufficient money to free the next generation called for many sacrifices for the free parent. Yet the commitment was obvious, as the effort had to be lodged before the freed parent could indeed fully her new status. Koger’s book also gives glimpses of strategies the enslaved used to obtain the freedom of slave women of childbearing age so that their future children would not be born into chains. This economic sacrifice to free the mothers before they gave birth was an investment for the next generation. Such strategies surely apply to us today. Sacrificial investments are needed to “buy” back our children from the grasp of present day forms of enslavement, and to save our children before they grow up and give birth to an enslaved generation.
After Reconstruction, generational sacrifice took the form of a movement for Black farm land purchase and ownership. The governmental promise of forty acres and a mule to some former slaves was indeed a broken promise. Black farmers, meanwhile, struggled to free themselves from sharecropping while also struggling to buy their own land– an ongoing issue. For some, this ownership of farmland was used to support the families, to provide resources to educate the children, to supply wealth to use to purchase other business investments, and to provide land where their adult children could continue to live, even to today. Farming is back-breaking work. The sacrifice was real.
Whenever I started to bemoan the generational sacrifices I was called to make, my mother would encourage me with one of her memories. Years ago, my mother was struggling with a physical disability, health problems and financial problems after a divorce while raising six children on her own. And though my mother only graduated from 12th grade, which was a huge accomplishment for Black Mississippians living in rural counties, she was determined that each of her six children would go farther and finish college. She often said, “I want you all to get your education so that you do not have to clean White folks’ houses as I had to.”
For a while my mother received food stamps and welfare. One condition for some of the benefits was that children of a certain age had to work summer jobs by cleaning parks or streets or doing whatever was available. At that point, most of us were in college or graduate school. My youngest brother was in college and had been accepted into a summer, pre-medical school program in New York City for minority students considering medical school. The welfare office called my mother and told her that my youngest brother would have to work that summer. My mother explained to them that her son had to go to this all expenses paid program, as he was going to become a doctor one day and the program would help him get into medical school. The social worker started to laugh, loudly, and called over other workers to hear the story and laugh, too. Then the social worker said, “If your boy does not report for summer work, you will lose your benefits.”
After unsuccessfully pleading with them, my mother’s strong reply was: “You do what you have to do and I will do what I have to do.” My mother did what she had to do. My brother did not report for work. He went to the pre-med summer program. The welfare office did what they said they would do and cut off my mother’s family benefits. My mother found bits of jobs and struggled with her health problems as she worked that summer. When my brother returned that August, my mother reapplied for the benefits and had them restarted. Today, with the help of her generational sacrifice, my brother is a practicing doctor. My mother has passed away, but not before seeing all six of her children complete college and some graduate and professional schools.
Her decision to forego assistance for that one summer led to the creation of future wealth.
Around the same time of the above incident, my older brother, who was a public school teacher and coach, was studying in graduate school. One day when we were visiting at my mother’s, he called me outside to talk. He said he had sadly decided that he could not continue his graduate school education, provide for his family and get his children all through school and college. He said he wanted to talk with me because he knew I would be sad for him, but it was the right sacrifice, he explained. I remember saying maybe after they all finish college he could return, as I knew he enjoyed learning immensely. He gave me a sad smile and a hug. He never returned to graduate school, he was killed in an accident on a construction site where he worked to pick up extra money for his family, after he retired from teaching. Ultimately, all of his children finished college and some graduate school. One of his daughters went back to college and finished years after his passing. His sacrifice is duly noted and continued past his life.
Like my older brother’s concern with education of his children, other Blacks are obviously similarly invested. The statistics suggest such. According to the Pew Research Center, high school dropout rates for Blacks have dropped from 24% in 1976 to 8% in 2013 (for all Americans the rate dropped from 16% to 7%). In spite of this, Black education rates are still lower than Whites. Further, a 2010 Department of Education Report indicates that almost 50 percent of all Black college students are still first generation college students. While higher education certainly helps to slightly even the playing field, building Black family wealth (assets minus debt) is challenging. The median wealth of White families is 13 times that of Black families. The median wealth of Black families documented in the Pew Research report is only $11,000.
For young parents, understanding and accepting the need for generational sacrifices may be difficult. Many young Black parents may have their own personal hopes and dreams, or just want to enjoy their own lives and their friends more. Still, the Pew Report also reflects (what most of us already know), almost 80% of Blacks say we have a long way to go before we get to racial equality. We will not get to racial equality and increased Black wealth without Black sacrifices. Without “some” type of generational sacrifices, Black families will continue to lag behind in acquiring real wealth and stability for our future and for future generations. I am hoping that each reader here will think about this call for personal action and envision in each one’s life what the generational sacrifice will be.
I must confess to you, it is a difficult decision to put a future generation ahead of oneself. Yet, it is something we can all do in some way, whether with our mental energies, our educational abilities, our time or our financial resources.
For the freed slaves, it meant sacrificing financially to help buy others their freedom. For Black farmers, it meant back-breaking work and sparing the children from some of it so they could go to school sometimes, and paying off the land so family members would have a place to live. For parents who have not attended college themselves, it means helping our youth further their education and plan for their economic independence. For my older brother, it meant foregoing his own graduate school education to secure an education for his children and his children’s children. For my dear mother, it meant struggling with a low wage job so my younger brother could spend his summer being prepared for a brighter and wealthier future and so all six of her children could move forward.
Building wealth is not easy, but if we all sacrifice for the future, the individual burden will lessen. As Judge Keith said, Black generations before us scrubbed the floors and opened doors, and now it is time for us to render similar sacrifices for future generations so they can too can build Black wealth.
Angela Mae Kupenda is a professor at Mississippi College School of Law.