Slave-built infrastructure still creates wealth in US, suggesting reparations should cover past harms and current value of slavery

Slave-built infrastructure still creates wealth in US, suggesting reparations should cover past harms and current value of slavery

The Port of Savannah used to export cotton picked by enslaved laborers and brought from Alabama to Georgia on slave-built railways. Cotton is still a top product processed through this port. Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Joshua F.J. Inwood, Penn State and Anna Livia Brand, University of California, Berkeley

American cities from Atlanta to New York City still use buildings, roads, ports and rail lines built by enslaved people.

The fact that centuries-old relics of slavery still support the economy of the United States suggests that reparations for slavery would need to go beyond government payments to the ancestors of enslaved people to account for profit-generating, slave-built infrastructure.

Debates about compensating Black Americans for slavery began soon after the Civil War, in the 1860s, with promises of “40 acres and a mule.” A national conversation about reparations has reignited in recent decades. The definition of reparations varies, but most advocates envision it as a two-part reckoning that acknowledges the role slavery played in building the country and directs resources to the communities impacted by slavery.

Through our geographic and urban planning scholarship, we document the contemporary infrastructure created by enslaved Black workers. Our study of what we call the “landscape of race” shows how the globally dominant economy of the United States traces directly back to slavery.

Looking again at railroads

While difficult to calculate, scholars estimate that much of the physical infrastructure built before 1860 in the American South was built with enslaved labor.

Railways were particularly critical infrastructure. According to “The American South,” an in-depth history of the region, railroads “offered solutions to the geographic barriers that segmented the South,” including swamps, mountains and rivers. For inland planters needing to get goods to port, trains were “the elemental precondition to better times.”

Our archival research on Montgomery, Alabama, shows that enslaved workers built and maintained the Montgomery Eufaula Railroad. This 81-mile-long railroad, begun in 1859, connected Montgomery to the Central Georgia Line, which served both Alabama’s fertile cotton-growing region – cotton picked by enslaved hands – and the textile mills of Georgia.

Sepia-toned lithograph of six Black men and women in sunhats and overalls in a cotton field
Picking cotton outside Savannah, Ga., in 1867. Library of Congress

The Eufala Railroad also gave Alabama commercial access to the Port of Savannah. Savannah was a key cotton and rice trading port, and slavery was integral to the growth of the city.

Today, Savannah’s deep-water port remains one of the busiest container ports in the U.S. Among its top exports: cotton.

The Eufala Railroad closed in the 1970s. But the company that funded its construction – Lehman Durr & Co., a prominent Southern cotton brokerage – existed well into the 20th century.

Examining court affidavits and city records located in the Montgomery city archive, we learned the Montgomery Eufaula Railroad Company received US$1.8 million in loans from Lehman Durr & Co. The main backers of Lehman Durr & Co. went on to found Lehman Brothers bank, one of Wall Street’s largest investment banks until it collapsed in 2008, in the U.S. financial crisis.

Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation’s newsletter.

Slave-built railroads also gave rise to Georgia’s largest city, Atlanta. In the 1830s, Atlanta was the terminus of a rail line that extended into the Midwest.

Some of these same rail lines still drive Georgia’s economy. According to a 2013 state report, railways that went through Georgia in 2012 carried over US$198 billion in agricultural products and raw materials needed for U.S. industry and manufacturing.

Black and white image of an old train depot
The 1872 Vicksburg & Brunswick Depot, a passenger and freight station in Eufala, served the Eufala and Georgia Central rail lines, among others. Library of Congress

Rethinking reparations

Savannah, Atlanta and Montgomery all show how, far from being an artifact of history, as some critics of reparations suggest, slavery has a tangible presence in the American economy.

And not just in the South. Wall Street, in New York City, is associated with the trading of stocks. But in the 18th century, enslaved people were bought and sold there. Even after New York closed its slave markets, local businesses sold and shipped cotton grown in the slaveholding South.

Black-and-white lithograph of a wide street lined with large buildings
Wall Street around 1850. New York Public Library

Geographic research like ours could inform thinking on monetary reparations by helping to calculate the ongoing financial value of slavery.

Like scholarship drawing the connection between slavery and modern mass incarceration, however, our work also suggests that direct payments to indviduals cannot truly account for the modern legacy of slavery. It points toward a broader concept of reparations that reflects how slavery is built into the American landscape, still generating wealth.

Such reparations might include government investments in aspects of American life where Black people face disparities.

Last year the city council in Asheville, North Carolina, voted for “reparations in the form of community investment.” Priorities could include efforts to increase access to affordable housing and boost minority business ownership. Asheville will also explore strategies to close the racial gap in health care.

It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to calculate the total contemporary economic impact of slavery. But we see recognizing that enslaved men, women and children built many of the cities, rail lines and ports that fuel the American economy as a necessary part of any such accounting.The Conversation

Joshua F.J. Inwood, Associate Professor of Geography Senior Research Associate in the Rock Ethics Institute, Penn State and Anna Livia Brand, Assistant Professor, University of California, Berkeley

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Foreclosures Hit Churches Hard

Foreclosures Hit Churches Hard

The gates of hell will not prevail against the work of the church, but what about that massive bank loan?

An April CBN News report on church foreclosures was rebroadcast online last week and got Urban Faith digging into the topic. The report focused on two black churches in Atlanta that were threatened with foreclosure. One church, Higher Ground Empowerment Center (HGEC), renovated (and changed its name) after a 2008 tornado damaged its building, but couldn’t repay its $1 million mortgage when attendance and giving declined during a year-long displacement.

When the story originally ran, the church’s fate was uncertain. Urban Faith tried to contact HGEC both by phone and email to find out what the outcome was, but didn’t get a response. Citi-Data.com lists the church (under its former name) as the owner.

The church’s Facebook page is active and advertises a Financial Fast on the first week of every month in 2011. Congregants are advised to meditate on Scripture verses (Exodus 22:14; Proverbs 22:7; Matthew 25:14-20; Malachi 3:10) and refrain from discretionary spending and credit card dependency. The fast was scheduled to kick off in May with a 4-week Bible Study on Becoming Better Financial Stewards.

“The fast is really about curbing the need to consume. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a good steward or a spendthrift; all of us consume more than we need,” the announcement said.

If any of our Atlanta readers know the fate of this congregation, please let us know. Whatever it is, we applaud its willingness to advocate better financial stewardship.

“More than 90 metro Atlanta churches were posted for prospective foreclosure from 2006 to 2010, according to a review by the Kennesaw-based real estate research firm Equity Depot for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,”  AJC reported in February. Fifty churches, most of them small African-American congregations, “dominate the foreclosure lists,” AJC reported.

In January, The Wall Street Journal published a story that explored the roots of  the church foreclosure crisis nationwide. The bottom line: Historically, churches have been accustomed to obtaining specialized loans that allow them favorable repayment structures. But after the economic downturn, many of those churches were faced with situations similar to the subprime mortgage crisis that devastated countless homeowners.

“Since 2008, nearly 200 religious facilities have been foreclosed on by banks, up from eight during the previous two years and virtually none in the decade before,” The CoStar Group real estate services firm told the Wall Street Journal. A representative at CoStar told Urban Faith Friday that the group hasn’t updated its church foreclosure data since then, but promised to keep us posted if it does.

In April 2010, Reuters published an in-depth report on the situation, which also noted that African American churches have been hit particularly hard.

“Their congregations have suffered higher unemployment, and often the churches provide more services,” Reuters reported.

Rev. Grainger Browning, senior pastor of Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington Maryland told the news wire, “At a recent meeting with the 100 top pastors in the country, it was amazing how all of us were facing some sort of challenge with the banks.”

A historically high rate of church building preceded the most recent economic collapse. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, money spent on the construction of religious buildings rose sharply in the late 1990s and peaked at $9 billion in 2003 before leveling off. A study by the Barna Group found that more than half of U.S. churches said they have been hurt by the recession, according to the Reuters report.

Then, on July 8, BusinessWeek published a grim article about the residential housing collapse titled “The Housing Horror Show Is Worse than You Think,” which makes us suspect the crisis is far from over for churches.

“The housing decline will be a long, multiyear process, and the multiplier effect across the economy will be enormous,” Doug Ramsey, an analyst at Minneapolis investment firm Leuthold Group told BW.

“What was real and what was never meant to be?” Ramsey wondered.

It’s a good question for struggling congregations as well. With iconic churches like Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral going bankrupt, perhaps its not only the end of the McMansion era, but also the church expansion one.

The situation leaves us with questions:

What was done in faith and what was bad stewardship?

What do church foreclosures and bankruptcies do to the church’s collective witness?

How do we respond in faith to this crisis?

If your church is being foreclosed upon or facing serious financial hardship and you think your story can help others, we want to hear from you. Email me at [email protected]