Almost ten years ago, I sat with a family member watching a documentary series named Hidden Colors created by Tariq Nasheed. Despite being considered a controversial series, Hidden Colors opened my worldview to deep systemic issues in American society. As a Foundation Black American born in Baltimore, I was taught how to handle, package, and distribute drugs. I never gave it a second thought because that was “life in the ghetto.” Still, Hidden Colors and my journey into self-education have taught me a lot about racism and the mechanisms that hold our people down. Looking back, I was often rejected from jobs because I “didn’t fit the criteria.” I believe some people honestly did not think I was a good fit, but I realize that a lot of the rejection came from prejudice and racist ideas built into American culture. In fact, recent studies have shown that hiring discrimination against black people has not fallen in over 25 years.
A tall black kid from an impoverished neighborhood with tattoos and a criminal record could not succeed in a system built to suppress us. I often heard that “black culture” is the problem and that black people just have to “work harder,” so I decided to study my family’s history to better understand the political, social, and economic structures that control America. I realize now that my people’s struggle with poverty, the legal system, education, and drugs is rooted firmly in our past.
Slavery and My Great-Great Grandfather
My journey into America’s history brought me to Lancaster County, South Carolina in 1810. A young man named Louis Vinson was born into slavery, and he was forced to work in the fields for his “master.” Louis Vinson was born into slavery, but his parents were likely brought to America on one of the gruesome “cargo ships” between 10 million and 20 million Africans on the “Middle Passage.” Louis Vinson and his parents worked in inhuman conditions for long hours every day. They were punished by being whipped, murdered, or even raped. Slaveholders’ psychological terrorism included raping both young women and men. The rape of black women by white enslavers was so prevalent that studies estimate that around 17 percent of African Americans have ancestors from Europe. Louis Vinson was the grandfather of my grandmother, Mrs. Naomi Davis.
Vinson survived slavery, and he lived through the Civil War. I was taught that the war was fought over slavery and that President Lincoln emancipated slaves in America. However, we were not informed that the Emancipation Proclamation was a war strategy. Lincoln freed the slaves because he wanted more manpower for the war, and he hoped it would undermine slavery in the South. In the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln declare that all blacks in the Confederate South were free. At first glance, this seems to suggest Lincoln freed slaves, but digging deeper reveals that Lincoln did not mention freeing slaves in the Union. He only “freed” slaves in a territory that he did not have control of, and he refused to push breeding farm states such as Maryland to free slaves. The rebel Confederacy had no reason to adhere to this proclamation, so Vinson remained a slave until the war ended.
In 1863, President Lincoln allowed black people to earn their freedom if they fought for the Union Army against the Confederates. Almost 180,000 blacks signed up to fight for their freedom, and they made up around 10 percent of the Union Army. Historians have argued that the Union would not have won the war without the black soldiers that fought. After the war, Louis Vinson and other slaves were given freedom due to the bravery of those Foundational Black Americans helped the Union end the Civil War in 1865. However, they were mostly left to fend for themselves. At the same time, President Lincoln signed a bill that afforded those slaveowners loyal to the Union $300 for every slave they owned.
At that time, my ancestor “worked” on a “farm” owned by a white man named Joe Kerr. With the Confederate South dismantled, the Union began to confiscate plantations from slave owners in the South. Black people expected reparations, but they did not come to our people. January 16, 1865, William Sherman, a Union general, proclaimed that black people would get 40 acres and a mule. He also proposed that land from Charleston, South Carolina, to Jacksonville, Florida, would be designated to the blacks that were slaves. The government quickly squashed Sherman’s idea. Black people were not given the reparations they deserved for lifetimes of unpaid labor. My ancestor, Louis Vinson, could have possibly lived a better life if he was granted the land that he had worked his entire life. He could have cultivated that farm as his own land. It could have been an equalizer that gave Black people a pathway to social and economic mobility. When I read about the war and reparations, I realized that my family had never truly been compensated for their labor as enslaved people while former slaveowners got compensation for slaves being freed.
Racism and Anti-Black Legislation During Jim Crow
On August 2,1877, Lemuel Vinson, my great grandfather, was born in Lancaster county. By the 1870s, slavery had ended, but the power structures had changed to embed racism in American society in different ways. The 13th amendment was ratified with the clause that it was “unconstitutional to commit anyone to involuntary servitude, except if you’re duly convicted of a crime.” White people in the South utilized this clause to maintain their former slave workforce by creating a labor prison system. People could not work involuntary for free, but they could be forced to labor if they were criminals. This system is known as “convict leasing,” and it meant that large numbers of Black people were imprisoned for petty crimes then leased to private individuals and corporations. Black people were terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan while being systematically segregated in restaurants, housing, and public transport. Marriage between “a white person and a negro” was made illegal in states such as Maryland. Black children were forced to go to separate schools from white kids. The doctrine of “separate but equal” ensured that black people could be given subpar schools and inhuman living conditions as long as they were considered relatively “equal” to white people.
My great grandfather witnessed these horrible events, but he remained a man of great faith. He became a pillar of his community and a member of Steel Hill A M E Zion Church, which still stands today. He attended the church for decades because it was founded by former slaves like his father. Black people were still able to find joy despite the fact the racist institutions that propped up slavery had just evolved to find new ways to keep them in chains.
Civil Rights, The War on Crime, the War on Drugs, and Mass Incarceration
These racial practices continued long into the Civil Rights Era throughout America. Many people believe Jim Crow in the South was the only form of racism, but the United States government allowed racism to occur throughout the nation. Black people were locked up for crimes such as “vagrancy” and “peonage” throughout the country. In the North, black people faced a lack of employment opportunities and inadequate housing. Redlining kept black people out of “good neighborhoods.”
By the late 1950s, my parents Alphonso Davis and Constancia Evans were born into segregation. Racism was built into society, so they endured the psychological torment of segregation in schools, movie theaters, and restaurants.
Only a few generations removed from slavery, my parents witnessed the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement. Like most Black Americans, their family was excited to see President Lyndon B. Johnson sign the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Acts solidified a political alliance between Black Americans and the Democratic Party that continues today. The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s ended apartheid in the South, but they overlooked the racism built into the political, social, and economic systems in the North. Cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chicago had de facto racist housing and employment policies despite their claims to “liberalism.” Black activists were aiming for a fundamental shift in the political system that would make it more equal. Still, the Democratic leaders of the 1960s were more concerned with North Carolina than New York. While great strides have been made in the rights of immigrants, women, and religious minorities, black people are consistently and strategically deprived in our own country.
The 1980s continued to see politicians appealing to black votes without wanting to be accountable to black voters. As my mother and father had their first children, politicians continued to pass laws that hurt our communities. Black people had voting rights, and segregation was illegal in theory. Yet, there was no full employment policy, no welfare reform, and no national health policy. The CIA and other government organizations were suggested to be part of biological warfare against Black America by introducing crack cocaine into our neighborhoods. Many black men and women became addicted to the drug, resulting in an epidemic that destroyed black communities. Politicians differentiated between crack and other forms of cocaine, so their children could get away with crimes while Black children went to jail. Laws against crack gave a disparity of one hundred to one between crack cocaine and powdered cocaine. Being tough on crime essentially meant sending black people to jail.
As a young person living in Baltimore during the 1990s, I did not understand the roots of these drug crisis, but drugs were all around me. We often found crack pipes or used dope needs in our alleys as a kid. Most horrifically, my cousin and I found a person who had died from a crack overdose in an abandoned house near our own home.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the introduction of bills such as the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 as part of the War on Drugs and the War on Crime. These acts had widespread support from politicians such as the Clintons, Storm Thurmond, Joe Biden, and Ronald Reagan. The new legislation created a school to prison pipeline that ensured that black children were on the fast track to becoming a “criminal.” The 1994 Crime Bill militarized law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and it introduced a “3 strikes, and you’re out” rule. Thus, any individual convicted of three felonies would face a life sentence. The mass incarceration system developed during the 1980s and 1990s has been described by historian Michelle Alexander as the “New Jim Crow.” President Clinton has often said he regretted that he “signed a bill that made the problem worse.” Yet, his regret does not help the thousands of black people, including my cousins and friends, who suffered because of this racist legislation. The War on Drugs and the War on Crime that created mass incarceration should be named the War on Black people.
Today, close to 60 percent of white Americans believe that the average black person is faring as well as the average white person. Many news reporters and white people say that “inner city” poverty and mass incarceration result from the culture of black people. They argue that we have achieved the goals of the Civil Rights movement and that Affirmative Action has become unfair to white people. However, the average black household income is $29,500 compared to $46,300 of white people.
Yet, the story of urban poverty in the black community does not exist within a historical bubble. The life that I was born into was a product of hundreds of years of racist ideology. My great-great-grandfather was born a slave, his family were oppressed by Jim Crow, and their children faced the War on Crime and the War on Drugs. I was born into an impoverished neighborhood, not because my parents did not work hard, but because the system was stacked against them.
American society has legislated that being black means being criminal. We had a black president, but that has not stopped police brutality or mass imprisonment because those problems were rooted in slavery and segregation. Black people are not “looking for a handout” when we demand reparations and declare that Black Lives Matter. We are asking that the system pay its dues for the historical atrocity of slavery and the modern legislation that criminalized our very livelihood.
As a Foundational Black American, I have learned a lot by studying my family history. I have been angered by systemic racism and enlightened to its persistence in American society from slavery to today. Still, I have also never been prouder of my ancestors and my family because they have paved the trial that I will continue to follow. The story of Black America truly is a tale of pain, prejudice, and pride.