Racism, Inheritance and Family Financial Aid

“I didn’t own slaves, why should I feel guilty?” is a common response of White people to hearing about racism today. This response regards slavery and theft of Indigenous peoples’ land as so ancient that paying attention to them today only invites anger and guilt. But I will show how racial privilege is a living inheritance, kept alive through processes such as inheritance and family financial aid. As a backdrop, consider data from the 2004 census, when the median net wealth of White non-Hispanic families was $113,822, of Black families just $8,650; and of Hispanic families, $13,375. Might these huge discrepancies have historical roots?
 
I was born into a White professional class family, daughter of a father who was a physician and a mother who stayed home to raise her children. When I was six, my father died suddenly of a heart attack. My mother’s parents came to our financial rescue: between them and my father’s life insurance, we were able to keep our home, and my mother was able to continue to stay home to raise us. Later my maternal grandparents helped put us through college, and my share of my grandfather’s will helped fund my graduate education. My grandmother established a trust; when my mother died, the share I inherited helped pay for my house. Where did these financial assets come from?
 
Strong contributors were a long history of inheritance and “family financial aid.” As Shammas, Salmon and Dahlin document in Inheritance in America(Galveston, Frontier Press), “The bulk of household wealth in America, perhaps as much as 80 percent of it, is derived from inheritance, not labor force participation” (p. 3). Lui, Robles, Leondar-Wright, Brewer, and Adamson, in their book The Color of Wealth: The Story Behind the U.S. Racial Wealth Divide (The New Press, 2006) explain that large disparities in family wealth produce disparities in “family financial aid” to offspring, such as contributions to a down payment on a house or help with college tuition. About half of White families can afford this kind of aid, compared with only about one-fifth of Black families.  
 
Here’s a slice of how these processes of inheritance and family financial aid worked in my family before I was even born. (For a more complete discussion, see my chapter in Critical (hi)Stories: Crafting Pedagogies of Collaboration, Inclusion, Re(presentation) and Voice edited by Kristen Luschen and Judith Flores Carmona, 2014, Peter Lang.)
 
My maternal grandmother descended from the Appalachian Mountains. Growing up, I had assumed her family to be relatively poor. It turns out that while some were poor, others were not, including the H. and McC. families.  
 
George H., a land speculator, bought 160 acres from the state of Tennessee in 1827, land that was previously Cherokee. He bought other pieces of land as well, but this was the one he bought right after Indigenous peoples had been pushed off of it. County deeds records show a pattern of him buying and selling land continuously in Tennessee, which during that time that was mainly restricted to White people. In addition, between the 1830s and the Emancipation Proclamation, he owned between 3 and 6 slaves at a time. In the 1860 U.S. Census, his family wealth had grown to $30,000 ($719,152 in 2010 dollars).
 
He and his first wife had about 14 children. One of their eldest, Ben, from whom I descend, went to Arkansas where he bought a small plantation and six or seven slaves. When Ben and his wife’s three children (one of whom, Dewitt, was my ancestor) were still small, he died from injuries sustained in a duel, leaving behind debts, since apparently he had managed the plantation very badly. The three children were sent to Tennessee to live with their grandfather and his second wife; I am not sure why they did not stay with their mother. When George died, his will divided his estate equally among his children and the offspring of children who had died. Having being raised by a wealthy grandparent, then inheriting a portion of his estate, Dewitt was able to complete his education, buy a small farm, and later become County Clerk.
 
One of Dewitt’s daughters was my great-grandmother, who married a descendant of the McC family. William McC was a neighbor of George. In 1828, he purchased 67 acres from a trader who had earlier purchased the land apparently from the Cherokee Nation. Like George, he also bought more land, although not as aggressively, and without buying slaves. By 1860, William’s family wealth was $9,000 ($275,746 in 2010 dollars). His will directed that his wife and children each be given $700 ($16,766 in 2010 dollars) plus an equal share of his estate after other bequests had been made.
 
One of William’s sons was my great-great grandfather John. In 1860, William deeded 132 acres to John for the equivalent of about $40,000 (2010 dollars). At some point, John had a two-story brick house built on the farm. It still stands, pictured below in the process of renovation.

McCaslin house in Tennessee

McCaslin house in Tennessee

One of John’s sons married Dewitt’s daughter; these were my great grandparents. They left Tennessee right after they were married, stopping for a few years in Steamboat Springs, Colorado (from which the Ute had just been expelled) and buying land there. A few years later, they moved the San Francisco area. My great-grandfather drifted from job to job and eventually abandoned the family. But my great-grandmother managed to accumulate money, I suspect with the help of her Tennessee parents. She passed down what she had to her children, one of whom was my grandmother.

My grandparents invested in property in the San Francisco Bay area; these were the grandparents that had helped us when I was younger. Their ability to invest in property needs to be understood in the context of rampant racial discrimination, such as restrictive covenants to prevent people of color from buying into White neighborhoods, and real estate practices that steer buyers of color away from White neighborhoods.The Federal Housing Administration, created by the federal government in 1934 to help lift (White) families out of the Depression by offering loans, was specifically constructed to keep people of color from buying in White neighborhoods. So, my grandparents were able to buy and sell property in a market structured by regulations and processes that explicitly benefited White property buyers like themselves.
 
I haven’t mentioned my ancestors working. Most of them worked hard, but with resources. Some augmented those resources, others blew them. But the point is that considerable wealth initially came from land from which the Indigenous peoples had been expelled so that Whites could have access to it. Slave labor augmented that wealth. And the wealth was passed down through the family in the forms of inheritance and family financial aid.
 
One cannot rewrite history, but one can author the present. For example, currently the land base of most Indigenous tribes is inadequate. Within the boundaries of many reservations, the U.S. government sold or transferred control of plots of land to non-Indians, resulting in a checkerboard pattern of land under tribal control, giving rise to economic difficulties for tribes as well as difficulty in building tribal sovereignty. Other tribes lost their land entirely during the Termination period the 1950s, and are trying to reclaim it.

To address these problems, several Indian-controlled organizations seek financial donations; anyone today can help out. Examples include:

If you are curious as to how inheritance and family financial aid played out historically in your own family, in contexts that enabled White families to accumulate resources on the backs of people of color, property records and wills are a good place to start.

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