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Slavery’s Legacy Remembered

It has been 150 years, but the legacy lives on…

How close we are to slavery: America’s horrible legacy still deeply runs through the nation’s veins

For Lula Williams, America’s worst period isn’t ancient history — her grandmother was a slave

How close we are to slavery: America's horrible legacy still deeply runs through the nation's veinsAs a child growing up in South Carolina, I was keenly aware of how close I was to the history of slavery. It was all around me — in the fact of my ancestors owning slaves and fighting for the Confederacy, in the presence of black people who shared my last name, and in the Confederate battle flag that flew on my state’s capitol.

In many ways, the war for white supremacy was not over. It was simply being fought by other means.

I’ve been trying to understand and account for this history and my own privilege as a white male by writing and teaching about the nexus of race and violence in America. I mostly encounter white people who are embarrassed and angered by the violence of slavery and lynching or white people who don’t think it has any relation to them or to the present.

When Dylann Roof murdered nine black people last June at Emmanuel A.M.E., a church with deep roots in the freedom struggle, the proximity of our present lives to our nation’s slaving past resonated once again especially as photos surfaced of Roof posing before the Confederate flag.

Then Nikki Haley, the governor of my home state, did something I never imagined happening in my lifetime—she signed the order to remove the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s state house grounds.

The backlash from the pro-flag contingent was swift. The Southern Poverty Law Center counted 346 pro-flag rallies in the months after South Carolina furled the flag.

Even in Ohio, where I live now, I noticed a spike in Confederate flags. Giant Confederate battle flags, fluttering in the wake of jacked-up trucks. Just two weeks ago, I saw one on a red GMC the very same day I interviewed a woman named Lula Williams who will turn 95 years old this month.

Lula’s grandmother, Eliza Jane Smiley, was a slave.

In a story that is in step with the terrifying realities of slavery, Eliza Jane’s father was also her master. As she grew up, Eliza Jane became the personal slave of her master/father’s young daughter. In fact, Eliza Jane slept on the floor next to her bed.

I repeated aloud what Lula said just be clear. “So she was a slave to her sister?”

Lula looked at me knowingly and said, “Weird. Sick minds.”

After Emancipation, Eliza Jane remained on the plantation, either because she lacked better opportunities or because she was coerced. Then she met a man named Charles Smiley who had been born a “free black.” Charles worked on a riverboat and the captain was friends with Eliza Jane’s father/master.

Charles took her away from the plantation and the two were married in 1873.  Charles, Lula’s grandfather, founded Hill Street Baptist Church in Louisville in 1895 and pastored there for over forty years. When Eliza Jane died, he came to live with Lula and her mother in Coshocton, Ohio.

Lula has fond memories of her childhood and her “loving close family,” but those memories are framed by stories of violence and barriers erected by both personal and institutional racism. She grew up knowing that the Klan was in her community, that a black man named Henry Howard was lynched on the courthouse square in 1885, and that a local jeweler kept one of Howard’s toes on display in his store.

There weren’t many black people, but the town, situated in the Appalachian foothills, was small enough that “most everybody knew everybody.” And yet some businesses still wouldn’t serve black people. Barbers wouldn’t cut their hair. Restaurants wouldn’t serve them. And some area towns were off limits to black people after sunset.

Lula said that some of her siblings had trouble in school because of their race. “They would call us names, and then we’d fight them,” she said. “But the others who were raised a little better, they ignored us, but at least they didn’t call us names.”

When her grandfather died, Lula traveled with her mother to Louisville for his burial. Once there her mother’s white aunt—Eliza Jane’s sister — contacted her and asked to see her. She was living in the Brown Hotel in Louisville.  Lula accompanied her mother to this meeting, but when she got there was told that she would have to sit in the hallway. Lula never did meet her.

“Is there any part of you that’s ever wanted to meet those people?” I asked.

“Not really. I was always kind of bitter about it. I can’t say that I hated them, but to me they just didn’t exist.”

 
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Posted by on June 19, 2016 in Black History

 

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Mandela’s Legacy

If you have been close to any News source today then you know that ailing former leader of South Africa Nelson Mandela has passed away.

A lot of people will be talking about his life and struggles, and apt comparisons to Ghandi and MLK – but one of the key things that probably won’t be discussed much is his accomplishments in modernizing and opening SOuth Africa’s economy to the formerly oppressed. That may well be his greatest accomplishment – to mold a country back together after a century or more of dysfunction …

During Apartheid the South African economy was held up by the twin mineral riches of gold and diamonds. Unfortunately those mines are pretty much played out. Besides trying to create a system wherein black Africans shared in the economy with their white counterparts the country needed to restructure the basis for i’s economy in terms of producing new goods to trade. Doing so meant breaking up the Apartheid Plantation system wherein whites owned 95% of the arable land in the country, slicing off a portion (not all) of these holdings into community corporations which could develop businesses. This launched the South African wine business into world competitiveness. It also allowed the country to develop regional trade relationships for manufactured goods and agricultural products. The result was that the income level of both white and black South African rose significantly.

The country still has a long way to go. One of the principal problems is a massive influx of immigrants from other parts of Africa who want to share in South African’s success. The formerly black Township of Soweto swelled from 3 million to nearly 20 million  people today in the last 15 years. The result of this is a 25% unemployment rate, despite a relatively healthy economy.

Rest in Peace President Mandela, and look proudly what your country has accomplished, your Long Walk is ended.

Remembering Nelson Mandela’s Unsung Economic Legacy

Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, was the most important leader in South Africa’s history and one of the global giants of his time. What people often overlook, however, is the role Mandela played in building up Africa’s largest economy. Nearly as consequential as Mandela’s moral example was his skill in managing the transition from apartheid without widespread violence, repression, or economic collapse.

Mandela believed strongly in the link between economic and political progress. Soon after his release from prison, Mandela argued that there must be “a fundamental restructuring of our political and economic systems to ensure that the inequalities of apartheid are addressed.” At the core of white minority rule had been the “homelands”: a system that kept almost half of South Africa’s population confined to semi-independent or supposedly sovereign states without the freedom to move or look for jobs in the rest of the country. The collapse of apartheid meant the end of those restrictions. The myriad legal restraints that prevented blacks and “coloreds” from gaining promotions—or access to jobs at all—were removed as well. From a state made up of 11 “countries” and three legally distinct racial groups—all with markedly different rights to move, work, and invest—South Africa became one economy. Think of it as opening borders to mass migration under the worst possible circumstances.

The dismantling of the homeland system, however, was by no means a certainty in the early days of Mandela’s presidency. The supposedly “sovereign” homeland of Bophuthatswana, home to 2.5 million, and semi-autonomous Kwazulu both threatened civil war over the dismantling of the homelands.  Relations between the African National Congress and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom party have remained tense—and sporadically violent—since the end of apartheid. But national unity and economic stability were both preserved largely through negotiation and compromise.

South Africa’s gross domestic product growth rate, meanwhile, picked up considerably under Mandela. Economic growth rose from less than 1.5 percent from 1980 to 1994 to slightly under 3 percent from 1995 to 2003. Despite the sudden influx of internal migrants with the legal right to compete equally for jobs, average personal incomes for white South Africans increased by 62 percent from 1993 to 2008, according to University of Cape Town economist Murray Leibbrandt. Average incomes for Africans themselves increased even faster—by 93 percent over that period.

As educational opportunities expanded, secondary enrollment rates increased from 50 percent to 70 percent from 1994 to 2005. The government also rolled out a range of infrastructure services: The proportion of the country that cooked using electricity from the mains climbed from 45 percent in 1993 to 73 percent by 2011, for example.

South Africa has become an increasingly important source of economic opportunity for its neighbors. South African investment accounts for around 70 percent of intra-regional investment flows. Imports from the Southern Africa Development Community—the regional trade block which South Africa joined upon its independence—climbed from $16.3 billion in 1993 to $68.7 billion in 2006. The number of migrants in South Africa—nearly all from other countries in the region—increased from 3.3 percent to 3.7 percent of the population between 1990 and 2010. There are now approximately 3.3 million SADC nationals living in South Africa; remittances from those migrants back to their home countries amount to close on $1 billion a year, according to South Africa’s FinMark Trust. The trust reports a 2005 survey of Zimbabwean remittance recipients in which more than half of respondents “agreed that they would have grown sick with hunger” in the absence of remittance payments.

Some tragic mistakes were made by President Mandela and his successors. The HIV/AIDS crisis and the government’s late and sporadic response to it shaved years off life expectancy. In 1993 4 percent of pregnant women in the country were HIV-positive. That climbed to 28 percent 10 years later, before finally leveling out. Today, a little more than one in 10 of the population is HIV-positive. Unemployment has remained stubbornly high—around 25 percent—and the gap between rich and poor is still wide. In 1993, the average white had an income more than nine times the average African. By 2008 that had dropped—but only to a little less than an eightfold income gap according to analysis by Leibbrandt.

Progress against poverty was even slower than these figures might suggest. That’s because inequality within the African population grew rapidly for the first decade of independence—a trend arrested only by the rapid expansion of social safety net programs in the last few years. (About 30 percent of South Africans benefited from social grants in 2010—up from 13 percent in 2002). Poverty in South Africa remains almost uniquely an African phenomenon. All but six percent of whites have piped water in their homes, for example, while two-thirds of Africans lacked access to it.

It’s worth considering the alternatives. At independence, South Africans looked north to Zimbabwe as a reasonably successful model of how things could work out after a difficult transition to majority rule. They’re extremely lucky that South Africa, under Mandela’s guidance, took a different path. Starting in the 1990s, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe ordered land “reforms” that took property from white farmers and awarded it to his cronies and henchmen, slashing output as a result. By the turn of the century, Zimbabwe’s inflation rate was heading over 100 percent; by 2006 it would top 1,000 percent. Zimbabwe’s economy remains in a state of punch-drunk torpor.

Some may be disappointed that Mandela failed to create an African lion to challenge the East Asian tigers in terms of growth and poverty reduction. But the nonviolent absorption of a considerable majority of the population into an economy from which they had previously been excluded, all while incomes and access to services improved and civil rights were respected, was an incredible accomplishment—one that owes much to Mandela’s leadership. Let’s hope his successors preserve that legacy.

 
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Posted by on December 5, 2013 in Africa

 

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