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Every February, African Americans and the nation alike, take the month to reflect upon the history of Black people in these United States. From the beginnings of slavery to the election of the first African American president, Black people have made many strides along the way and have certainly made their mark in the annals of American history.

In recognition, this is Part Four in OurWeekly’s four-part series on the 15 most pivotal aspects of Black History.

4. Social Programs

On the surface it may look like many of the social programs, such as the New Deal (President Franklin Roosevelt), welfare, Medicaid, food stamps and other programs (President Lyndon Johnson) have been a great benefit to the Black community, providing services African Americans may not be able to otherwise afford or access.

But study after study, dating as far back as the 1960s, seem to indicate that many of these programs have been a hindrance as well.

In fact, the news site Networks.org says: “The rise of the welfare state in the 1960s contributed greatly to the demise of the Black family as a stable institution.”

Here’s the premise: federal policies developed to fight poverty have actually destroyed Black families, and in particular the Black male.

“The paradigm of government as parent has destroyed the Black family and made Black fatherhood irrelevant,” said Rev. Cecil Blye, senior pastor at More Grace Ministries in Louisville, Ky., at the Stay True to America’s National Destiny (STAND) event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., about a year ago. “Our welfare policies have incentivized co-habitation, single motherhood and unemployment,” he added.

Blye, like many others, believes that it all began with President Johnson’s so-called War on Poverty, which he believed would lead to a “Great Society.”

“Fifty years later we see there can be no Great Society when government involvement incentivizes family disintegration, making it more profitable to cohabit than to be married,” Blye said. “We see 50 years later that there can be no Great Society when government involvement incentivizes joblessness making it impossible to make a judgment to take a low-skilled job when you’re making more money on the government dole.”

Blye is joined by many African American members of the National Center for Public Policy’s Project 21 which is an initiative to promote the views of African Americans whose entrepreneurial spirit, dedication to family and commitment to individual responsibility has not traditionally been echoed by the nation’s civil rights establishment, says its website.

“The War on Poverty has arguably destroyed the Black nuclear family,” said Christopher Arps of the Center, who is also a Black activist with the Project 21 Leadership Network. “Roughly 75 percent of Black children were born to a married two-parent family when the ‘war’ began in 1964. By 2008, the percentage of Black babies born out of wedlock numbered more than 72 percent.

Today, the rate of unwed motherhood in the Black community is more than twice as high as among Whites – and almost three times higher than before big government’s grand intervention. And all this comes at a steep financial cost. The federal government has spent an estimated $15 trillion dollars to end poverty. The U.S. reportedly spent $20,610 on every poor individual and $61,830 per poor family in 2012.”

Derryck Green, Project 21 spokesperson, called the War on Poverty initiative a “tragedy.”

“Statistics such as these demonstrate the War on Poverty was a continually-mismanaged disaster. That isn’t to say there haven’t been people helped by it. All things considered, however, it’s been a tragedy,” Green said.

“The disastrous effects of the government’s management of anti-poverty initiatives are recognizable across racial lines, but the destruction is particularly evident in the Black community. It effectively subsidized the dissolution of the Black family by rendering the Black man’s role as a husband and a father irrelevant, invisible and – more specifically—disposable.”

Programs being relegated as harmful include welfare, Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps and certain social security benefits.

Presidents before and after Johnson warned about the debilitating affects of some of these programs. In fact, President George H.W. Bush, in his own State of the Union Address, pointed out: “Welfare was never meant to be a lifestyle; it was never meant to be a habit; it was never supposed to be passed on from generation to generation like a legacy.”

“Although they were conceived with good intentions, the programs of the War on Poverty have ultimately had a negative impact on the lives of Black Americans,” commented Cherylynn Harley LeBon, co-chair of Project 21. “Even Franklin Roosevelt warned that the welfare state ‘must not become a narcotic and a subtle destroyer of the spirit.’”

“I think Section 8, Medicare and WIC crippled the community the most. It made motherhood look easy for bright-eyed teenage girls,” says April Black, an Atlanta-based professional and author. “With pro sports and entertainment at the forefront of every child’s dream, education becomes secondary. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, an education was the only way out and they fought so hard for it.

“I believe a good education gives you more control of your destiny. In both sports and entertainment, you are considered washed up at 35 years old. You can practice law and medicine until you die.”

Indeed, these programs have their opponents, but even they admit there is a bright side. With high blood pressure and breast cancer a major killer among African Americans, having access to healthcare via Medicaid and Medicare has had positive affects.

3. Economic empowerment

The glitz and glamour can be quite blinding. There’s an NBA star rocking this, and a hip hop star claiming that, but like the Wiz, when you pull back the curtain, the reality of the African American financial picture is really nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

A look at the data easily demonstrates that. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, a 2016 study reported that Blacks continue to lag far behind Whites in key areas of economic well being like wealth, income and home ownership, and this reality exists at all educational levels, notes the PEW report.

Take income for example. In 2014, the median household income for Whites was $71,300 compared to $43,300 for Blacks while the figure for college-educated Whites was $106,600 and for Blacks, it was $82,000. Further, a 2016 study by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation for Economic Developments projects that it will take 228 years for the average Black family to amass the same level of wealth that the average White family holds today.

There are historic and contemporary reasons for this. According to a 2013 report of the National Association Real Estate Brokers, since the last recession, December 2007 to June 2009, African Americans lost more than half of their wealth in part because of declining home ownership rates and loss of jobs. Add to this the fact that financially Blacks have not fared well over the years.

From 1888 to 1934, African Americans owned more than 130 banks but between 2001 and 2016, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation noted that Black bank ownership dropped more than half (54 percent).

Banks or financial institutions exist to do other wealth-generating things such as create and distribute credit; make loans to help establish businesses which yield jobs. Banks provide a foundation for community building of businesses and homes.

A recent study estimated that in the early 20th century, rural landownership among African-American farmers and non-farmers was between 16 and 19 million acres. The 1999 Agricultural Economics and Land Ownership Survey (AELOS), which assessed private rural landownership across race and use (i.e. farming, forestry, etc.), found that there were 68,000 African-American rural landowners and they owned a total of approximately 7.7 million acres of land, less than 1 percent of all privately owned rural land in the United States; 60 percent of which is owned by non-farmers.

AELOS considers the rural land ownership a significant economic resource base.

Bank ownership is another resource that Blacks have lost which also goes hand-in-hand with decreasing wealth.

Black business ownership is another element of African American wealth. According to Black Demographics.com, Black-owned businesses in the United States increased 34.5 percent between 2007 and 2012 totaling 2.6 million Black firms. More than 95 percent of these businesses are mostly sole proprietorships or partnerships which have no paid employees.

Black Demograophics.com goes on to note that Black companies create one million jobs a year, (compared to 2.5 million by Hispanic firms; 3.8 million by Asians and 55.9 million by Whites) which is enough to employ 4 percent of the working-age Black population and generate $187.6 million in revenue. However, those numbers trail the data for all of the major ethnic groups in the nation except for Native Americans.

Between 2002 and 2007, the number of American Indian and Alaskan Native-owned firms climbed to 236,967 firms and generated $34.4 billion in receipts in 2007, according to the Minority Business Development Agency.

Perhaps one of most complex challenges that face African Americans is where the majority of the population began “free” life in America.

The challenges African Americans faced included lack of education, limited job opportunities, and limited economic knowledge for the majority of Blacks.

This is not to say that African Americans made no economic gains. History notes that even during enslavement times, some Blacks (free and slave) were able to earn money with their unique skills. The money earned allowed some to operate businesses, purchase land, as well as buy the freedom of themselves and their family members. These businesses were operated with and without their owners’ permission.

John Carruthers Stanly is a perfect case. Born to a White merchant seaman and a African-born Ibo woman shortly before the American Revolution, he opened a barbershop (as a slave) and by the time he was 21 years old had developed a reputation as an astute entrepreneur.

During Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era, Blacks were able to operate inside the American legal system.

The early 20th century represented a significant period of growth for African American firms. In fact, the National Negro Business League, promoted by Booker T. Washington, opened more than 600 chapters, reaching every city with a significant Black population.

By the 1920s, there were thousands of Black-owned businesses. Most of them were small.

But the Great Depression (1929 to 1939) devastated the Black community as it did the rest of America. Unemployment and closed businesses changed the economic structure of the Black community again. World War II found many small business owners switching over to high-paying jobs in munitions factories.

The 1970s saw small businesses begin to revive in part thanks to federal government programs created to promote and support minority business activities.

In addition to external, market-driven forces, the economic outlook for Blacks was often subject to the sometimes capricious whims of government policies such redlining, discrimination, sharecropping, and the use of prison chain gang.

Perhaps one of the biggest lingering challenges African Americans have faced is the idea of how Blacks should be compensated for their labor stolen during slavery; their underpayment for their work during slavery, the sharecropping period and Jim Crow.

The discussion has ranged from the concept of “Forty acres and a mule” which referred to a promise made in the United States for agrarian reform for former enslaved African American farmers, by Union General William T. Sherman on Jan. 16, 1865 to the idea of reparations (H.R. 40) broached each year by Rep. John Conyers.

2. The Reconstruction Era

“…the way it (emancipation) was done led to tragedy, turning nearly four million people loose with no jobs or trades or learning. And then in 1877 for a few electoral votes, just abandoning them entirely. A huge amount of pain and trouble resulted. Everybody in America is still paying for it.”

—American historian Shelby Foote

Coming on the heels of the Civil War, Reconstruction (1865-1877) is arguably of equal importance in the progression of American history, because it informed everything that followed (especially racial issues). Taking place over the course of three presidential administrations (Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, and Ulysses S. Grant), it was characterized by erratic machinations between the federal government and the standard bearers of the defeated Confederated States of America for the dominion of the South. One of the first physical manifestations of this era was the Freedman’s Bureau founded in 1865.

Conceived by President Abraham Lincoln as the Civil War drew to a close, reconstruction was meant to rebuild the South and bring it back into the fold of the Union, along with assisting the newly freed slaves adjusting to freedom.

As a precursor to this, Lincoln replaced his Vice President Hannibal Hamlin (an abolitionist and “Radical Republican”) and chose senator Andrew Johnson from Tennessee as his running mate in the 1864 election as a gesture to the defeated southerners. Johnson was a pro-slavery Democrat (Democrats of the 1800s were dramatically different than the party we know today) who favored a conciliatory approach in dealing with the former Confederate states.

The 1965 Lincoln assassination and Johnson’s ascension to the presidency meant an end to the deceased’s moderate method, combined with the Radical Republican’s abrasive way of dealing with the vanquished southern rebels.

Johnson backed the 13th Amendment (ending slavery) but stipulated limitations preventing the newly freed men and women obtaining equal footing with their White counterparts (especially the right to vote). White southerners would employ other restrictive measures such as the laws called “the Black codes (1865-66),” which restricted the former slaves movement and ensured their availability for labor.

Johnson vetoed the 1866 14th Amendment (granting citizenship to “…all persons born or naturalized in the United States”), which none-the-less was adopted. It also prevented former confederates from running for political office. Johnson effectively neutralized this in 1868 by issuing amnesty and pardons to rebel veterans, and paved the way for them take back control of the South. Emboldened by the return of their voting rights, Democrat politicians called “Redeemers” used legal means to stymie any Black political progress.

In this, they were abetted by the emergence of vigilante groups (notably the Klu Klux Klan) determined to block Reconstruction efforts to grant equality for Americans of African descent. Meanwhile, the north was experiencing an economic “boom” facilitated by westward expansion, and the “Second” Industrial Revolution. Distracted by the financial windfall brought on by the completion of the transcontinental railroad and innovations in manufacturing and trade, northerners lost interest in their initial pledge to integrate ex-slaves into society.

This cleared the way for former slaveholders and their minions to rebuild the previously confederate states as they wished, and allowed racism to saturate the fabric of southern culture.

Advancements were made in spite of all this. The 15th Amendment (which Johnson previously vetoed) was passed in 1870, giving Blacks the coveted right to vote.

Meanwhile Johnson supported laws like the 1866 Southern Homestead Act, which enabled poor Whites to purchase land while assisting few Blacks. Feuds with the radical Republicans nearly got him impeached before his presidency ended in 1869.

His successor, Ulysses S. Grant came into the White House on the laurels of being commander of the victorious Union Army. His and the Republicans’ attempts rid the South of slavery and Confederate influence were hampered by corruption.

His success on the battlefield, facilitated by a knack for choosing talented subordinates, was contrasted by a chronic inability to select men of honesty and integrity to run the government.

Grant did have early successes, by providing federal protection for the newly emancipated slaves, which enabled Blacks to be elected to Congress and other state positions. The Enforcement Acts, passed in 1871-72, gave African Americans equal protection under the law and the ability to serve on juries and hold office. But the 1872 enactment of the Amnesty Act, giving Confederates reentry into the political realm, and dwindling federal funding meant an end to safeguards by the justice system and military intervention, against harassment by the Klan and other oppositional elements.

The Freedman’s Bureau, successful in building hospitals, schools, providing food and jobs, and the establishment of Fisk, Hampton, and Howard universities, along with dozens of other institutions of higher learning, eventually caved in under the pressure of its Southern antagonists. It ceased operations in 1872.

The long-term effectiveness of Reconstruction are still being debated by academics and historians.

Released from their bondage and legally defined as free and lawful citizens, the newly liberated were now induced, in Shelby Foote’s words, into “…a form of peonage that in some ways was worse than slavery.”

1. Slavery’s Intergenerational Impact

One of the most debated subjects among history academicians is how the institution of slavery started in the United States. The year African indentured servants entered the British colonies pre-U.S. was Aug. 1619; their arrival was recorded in a letter written by Jamestown colonists John Rolfe—husband of Native American Pocahontas, according to a collection of manuscripts belonging to Thomas Jefferson. Rolfe may have been requesting advice on how to handle the importation of the African slaves.

The letter was written to Sir Edwin Sandys, Treasurer of the Virginia Company of London. In the letter, Rolfe describes the arrival of a Dutch naval ship to the settlement of Jamestown, Va., with about 20 Africans to be sold as slaves.

Many Dutch historians believe this accident of fate referring to the ship docking in North America was due to the Dutch being inexperienced navigators in the African slave trade who got lost. Dutch historians also claim that the Dutch sailors, captured the Blacks from a Spanish ship, and traded the Africans for provisions because they were low on supplies and fresh water.

The proliferation of slavery in the United States

Three historical events following the Jamestown landing propelled the United States into an industrialized nation dependent on African slave labor.

In 1764, James Hargrave invented the “Spinning Jenny” (water powered cotton weaver) which led to the creation of textile mills in areas of the American north.

In 1794, Eli Whitney improved the design of the cotton gin, a mechanical device that removed seeds from cotton, this invention sped up the process of refining cotton. To maximize the full benefits of the cotton gin, more field slaves were imported from Africa.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase, and doubled the size of the nation; which affected the usefulness of slaves once more. Four new states—Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas together were known as the Deep South, joined the union as slave states. Jefferson called his acquisition “An empire for liberty across America.” However, the acqusition turned out to be an empire for slavery.

On 1811, Robert Fulton invented the river boat which allowed mass movement of bales of cotton.

With the mechanical modernization of cotton production, a result of the industrial revolution, inventions like the cotton gin, river boat, and textile mill, made cotton a profitable commodity. African slaves and cotton became as valuable as today’s oil industry and crude oil.

This industrialization impacted the abolishment of slavery. There was some hope immediately after the Revolutionary war that the ideas of independence and equality would extend to the Black American population. But this hope died, when the South rejected the idea of freeing slaves, and the institutions of slavery lasted 80 more years. Textile producing states in the north like Massachusetts, realized how much money could be made; this realization delayed the start of the Civil War until 1861.

The intergenerational impact of slavery on the African American

According to the notes of Frederick Douglass, who often described the violence of slavery on African American “Men and Women are whipped easiest,” a sentiment that points to the cyclical nature of violence against the enslaved. The lash, cane or raised hand was meant to make slaves docile and this desire for control promoted endless iterations of violence. Abuse only begot more severe abuse, in an endless pattern of brutality.

The above paragraph described the endless pattern of brutality that often reduced an individual slave to blood, keloided wounds, and unbearable pain, according to Dr. Rachel Yehuda, Director of the Mental Health Patient Care Clinic at the Peters Medical Center, and a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Yehuda is a researcher in the field of epigenetics, which seeks to identify the mechanisms by which traumatic stress may permanently alter the physiology of survivors in ways that are passed on to their descendants.

Frederick Douglass—for example, growing up a slave who witnessed the horrors of the institution of slavery and was impacted microscopically—underwent a genetic change. His DNA was automatically tagged and will be carried by his ancestors today.

Slavery may have altered Black people’s chemistry, and researchers have found certain genetic markers that are altered by traumatic experiences in a process called epigenetic change. By looking at the gene FKBP5, scientists already know that this was a gene that contributes to risks for depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

Trauma changes the genes of an individual. When we look at the genes of a slave’s descendants, they share the same epigenetic change in the same spot on the stress related gene of their ancestors.

Since the DNA is passed on from parents to children, research suggests that the traumatic life experience of slavery may have altered Black people’s internal chemistry.

The epigenetic inheritance theory holds that environmental factors such as the Atlantic Slave Trade or the Holocaust, can affect the genes of future generations. Keep in mind that the Holocaust lasted six years and the Atlantic Slave Trade lasted 250 years.

Chemical tags acting like Post-its can latch onto the DNA of our ancesters. This DNA will have the ability to switch our genes off and on—in regards to manufacturing chemical compounds necessary to conduct everyday physiological processes. A research team at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital led by Dr. Yehuda, a leading expert on post-traumatic stress and epigenetics, concluded that some of these tags could be transferred across generations.

How does this affect us? Living under the conditions of chronic stress causes a production of stress hormones which alter our DNA. When we are under stress, our DNA and other molecules produce glucocorticoids, a hormone which interacts with different organ systems. Past studies have shown that these glucocorticoids alter the genes that control the hypothalamus and pituitary glands of the brain, and the adrenal glands attached to the kidneys. When the FKBP5 gene is modified from our ancestors being slaves, this leads to Post Traumtic Slave Disorder (PTSD), depression and mood disorders, hypertension, diabetes and obesity—ailments which are common to African Americans.

The institution of slavery left a major footprint on the African American. As a result, Blacks suffer from: racism, economic disenfranchisement, substandard education, oppression and the social engineering that followed the Atlantic slave trade. From a medical standpoint, the increased need for high blood pressure and cholesterol medication among African Americans can be explained through epigenetics.

This article was compiled by:

  1. Carol Ozemhoya

  2. Cynthia Griffin

  3. Gregg Reese

  4. William Covington