Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Huge Head Start

I've been having the same conversation for many years with acquaintances both black and white, liberal and conservative. Why can't black people "get it together"?
Considering the fact that we all (allegedly), have the same opportunities, live in the same country, and have examples of some who have beat the odds, why is there still gross inequity when it come to wealth in the black community? Every single person in the United States has started the race on equal footing on a level playing field, right? Absolutely not! A piece of key legislation introduced 150 years ago this month would cement the legacy of many Americans. But not African-Americans.
In order for us to understand our present we must have the ability to understand and contextualize our past.  

The Homestead Act, signed by Lincoln on May 20, 1862, embodied a radical promise, free land for the masses. Until then the federal government had generally sold its unoccupied property, favoring men with capital. As a result, by the 1840s big farms were consuming smaller ones, and efforts to change the system were gridlocked as Congressional debate over slavery intensified. 

Then Lincoln was elected to the White House, and 11 Southern states seceded. Absent opposition from plantation owners, Congress passed the Homestead Act. Plantation owners opposed the Homestead Act for fear that newly freed slaves would lay claim to land that the perceived as rightfully theirs.

Beginning January 1, 1863, any U.S. citizen or intended citizen who had never taken up arms against the United States could claim up to 160 acres and take title by living and farming on the land for five years. Total charge  $18. Female heads of household were eligible. African-Americans were not included.

In 1862 when the Act was passed, and on January 1, 1863, when the legislation became law, the United States was a very different place than it would become in less than a decade, half a century, and a century later.
It is only when you place the Homestead Act within its historical context that the progressive nature of the legislation for anyone who was non-black emerges. 
  Strictly speaking, by the letter of the law, when the Homestead Act went into effect in 1863, African Americans were NOT allowed to homestead.  The reason can be found in the very first line of the Homestead Act.
“That any person who is the head of a family, or who has arrived at the age of twenty-one years, and is a citizen of the United States, or who shall have filed his declaration of intention to become such, as required by the naturalization laws of the United States, and who has never borne arms against the United States Government or given aid and comfort to its enemies, shall… be entitled to enter one quarter-section or a less quantity of unappropriated public lands.”   
Note the section that said you had to be “a citizen of the United States” or file a declaration of intention to become a citizen.  This is important because in 1863 when the legislation took effect, African Americans were not allowed to become U.S. citizens or declare their intentions because it was not legally possible for them to obtain citizenship.  

African American’s were not allowed to become citizens until the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed, granting citizenship to people born in the United States regardless of race or color, an Act that then had to be backed by an amendment to the U.S. Constitution two years later in 1868 when the 14thAmendment was ratified.  The Homestead Act had been on the books for three years before African Americans were allowed to become U.S. citizens, thus allowing them to homestead. There was no provision for African-Americans to benefit from the Homestead Act until there was a 14th amendment to the constitution. Thus African-Americans were 5 years behind. 5 whole years of exclusion.
  It is interesting to note that in 1872 the Homestead Act was extensively updated.  Updates to a law, known as “Revised Statutes”.  Notably, in section 2302 of the Revised Statutes of the Homestead Act, it became illegal to make a “distinction on account of race or color.”  The intention of this update was to ensure that African Americans were allowed to homestead.
If we add on the 4 years that it took for the Homestead Act to be updated to insure that African-Americans were allowed to homestead (1868-1872), that gave all of those who immediately benefited from the Homestead Act a 9 year advantage from the Acts inception in  1863 to the update in 1872. The very fact that the Homestead Act had to be updated suggests that the right of  African-Americans to homestead was not honored even after they became citizens. This had a devestating effect of the black community. The effects of which are still being felt to this day.
White homesteader's most of whom were European immigrants, had a 9 year head start when it comes to wealth procurement. Land/home ownership has always been the best long term investment, and the most reliable wealth building tool known to man.
Many of those whose ancestors were able to secure land through the Homestead Act were able to pass that land down from generation to generation insuring an inheritance for their kin, and not one of them pulled themselves up by their proverbial "boot sraps" and earned it. It was given to them. Despite what some have continually professed, the foundation for their American dream was not hard work, and a drive to succeed but the result of being the beneficiaries of a system set into place for their prosperity.

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