Given the history of African Americans in the United States, it is often presumed that as a group they have always been poor and disconnected from the larger economic system—at least until perhaps the 20th Century as the Civil Rights movement began to galvanize. Particularly as the institution of slavery developed and became entrenched in the South, the image that remains is of downtrodden plantation workers that generated wealth for their masters, but owned nothing themselves. In reality, acquiring assets has always been a reality for at least portions of the African American community. Although wealth holdings and net worth rarely approach the level of similar whites, Blacks have been property owners both before and after slavery. Prior to Emancipation, some slaves planted and sold their own crops from gardens, sold their own labor for money, and raised their own livestock. During the same time in the South, free Blacks began to acquire property and businesses (Schweninger, 1990). Even in the face of oppressive laws and difficult circumstances, the pride and independence of being a landowner was desired and attained by many. In fact, “by 1860, 16,172 free persons of color in the fifteen slave states had accumulated $20,253,200 worth of property, or $1,252 per individual property holder” (Schweninger, 1990, p. 96).
Williams Shanks, T. R. (2005). African-American: Building the country, losing the land (CSD Working Paper No. 05-43). St. Louis, MO: Washington University, Center for Social Development.