Returning to the South: Part 1

This article is Part 1, by Tiffany Brown, in a new series exploring the racial wealth divide across the Deep South.

My business partner Kate Poole 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 to explore the racist history of wealth accumulation in this country; during this activity, people walk the room locating points where their family accumulated wealth adjacent to a counterpoint of a racist law (like the Homestead Act).

Given how we met, it’s only natural that we would build an investment advisory practice 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 we did it in community.

I flew down to Mobile, Ala., in late April to tour the South with my dear friends, Jessica Norwood (Runway Project) and Lynne Hoey (Candide Group). I’ve known Jessica for more than a decade, and the three of us were RSF Integrated Capital Fellows in 2017/2018. Each of us addresses the racial wealth divide through finance. One of our primary goals was to strengthen our relationship with Hope Federal Credit Union, which serves the unbanked and under banked 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, Mississippi. We planned to end with a tour of the Mississippi Delta, led by our colleagues at Hope Credit Union. Through one lens, we were three women in finance (Black, mixed-race, and white), doing due diligence on a financial institution, Hope Credit Union. But the spirit of our trip was more about three women in finance working collaboratively to deepen our long-term vision, which is to partner with institutions working for racial and economic justice to address the U.S. racial wealth divide. To work toward repair: this doesn’t happen every day in finance.

Africatown
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 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 spiritual practice of Vodou, another line of connection to a Mother Land. In these ways, 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 smokestacks 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—as well as the resistance—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 to call it a school would legitimize the possibility that they were receiving the same caliber of education as white students.

These observations helped me begin to synthesize the brutal reality that people were illegally stolen from their home, legally enslaved in the U.S. for three years, and unofficially enslaved for even longer—with no consequence to their enslavers. After Emancipation, they worked on plantations for wages so meager that they could never amass to the amount of wealth needed to get back home. To add insult to injury, over subsequent generations, their new home became a dumping ground for toxins from the paper industry—the primary industry that could offer jobs. And today their children attend the “training school,” a reminder that they could only go but so far in a country that stole them, wouldn’t let them go home, and will not 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.

Photo credit: A monument in Africatown to Cudjoe “Kazoola” Lewis, the last known Survivor of the last known slave ship to enter the United States; photo courtesy: Tiffany Brown.

Continue reading Part 2 of the travelogue.