Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Black History Month: 'Roots' in realty history

Black History Month news that really hits home: Real estate offered economic freedom from slavery's bondage, sharecropping and tenant farming for ancestors of some of today's prominent African Americans.

by Broderick Perkins
© 2008 DeadlineNews.Com
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Deadline Newsroom - A little more than 100 years ago, the South's first black millionaire, Robert Reed Church Sr., tapped real estate holdings to purchase the first city bond issued by Memphis, TN to help the struggling town regain its city charter from bankruptcy.

In the early 1900s, before the Harlem Renaissance lit up New York with a cultural revolution, a barber-turned-property investor Philip Payton prevented the mass eviction of black tenants and helped pave the way for Harlem's growth.

No less important in the annals of African Americans in real estate, a lesser known Mississippi farm worker, Constantine Winfrey, bet white land owner John Watson he could pick 10 bales (at 500 pounds each) of cotton in one year if the land owner would give him 80 acres of land for the effort. A property title recorded the land exchange between the two in 1881. In 1906, the local "colored school" was slated for demolition, but Winfrey arranged to save it by moving it to his property.

The real estate-empowered efforts by Robert Reed Church and Philip Payton to save large communities are well documented in the historic archives of the cities they helped survive and thrive, but, until recently, few knew of Constantine Winfrey's smaller real estate-driven effort to save a school.

Even his great-great-granddaughter was unaware.

She's Oprah Winfrey.

History often overlooks the achievements of African Americans in American history. African American history often overlooks the leading role real estate plays in larger stories as well as numerous personal success stories, especially those carved from the oppressive era of slavery and post-slavery Reconstruction.

That's changing, thanks to "African American Lives", an ongoing Public Broadcast Service (PBS) series now available on DVD.

Researched and developed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. a W.E.B. Du Bois professor of the Humanities and chair of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, the research wasn't designed specifically to unearth real estate stories from Black America's past. Yet Gate's research does reveal a rich vein of real estate empowerment that runs through the ancestral pasts of some of today's most accomplished African Americans.

"Landownership represented economic freedom from slavery's bondage and the servitude of sharecropping or tenant farming," according to Gate's research.

Gates, putting a spin on the Alex Hayley "ROOTS" saga, used genealogy, oral history and family stories, but because the paper trail of black history eventually ends, he also employed deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) analysis to trace lineages through American history and back to Africa.

"So, my model for this series is "ROOTS," but ROOTS done with a cotton swab and a chemical analysis. These stories are as rich as the stories of Booker T. Washington or Frederick Douglass or W.E.B. Du Bois or Marcus Garvey. This is another way of telling history, and a way that everyone can respond to," Gates reported in his findings.

The research has been conducted for the ancestral pasts of television pioneer/philanthropist Oprah Winfrey; composer, entrepreneur, musician Quincy Jones; comedian, actor, activist Whoopi Goldberg; comedian, actor, activist Chris Tucker; CEO and pastor of The Potter's House, Bishop T.D. Jakes; NASA astronaut and Cornell science and technology professor, Dr. Mae Jemison; chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins, Dr. Ben Carson; Harvard sociologist and professor, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and others.

Among a host of exciting finds, Gates' research reveals bootstrap success often got a tug from real estate.

In addition to Winfrey parlaying real estate ownership into saving grace for a community institution, Chris Tucker's great-great grandfather Theodore Arthur Bryant Sr. used land ownership to save a small community.

At below-market prices in Flat Rock, GA, Bryant sold off parcels of his recently acquired 45 acres to give the town's black residents a n alternative to joining the Great Migration north following the collapse of Reconstruction.

Never benefiting from Union Gen. William T. Sherman's "forty acres and a mule" promise to freed slaves, Whoopi Goldberg's great-great-grandparents William and Elsie Washington were among the few blacks who actually acquired property in northern Florida through the Southern Homestead Act of 1866, a federal land redistribution scheme that made it difficult for blacks to acquire and hold land.

Less than 10 percent of blacks in Florida who petitioned for land under the act actually received a stake. Goldberg's ancestors received more than 104 acres in Alachua County, but only after qualifying for the title by completing mandated improvements -- building a dwelling, enclosing the land, and planting a successful crop -- all within five years of obtaining the parcel.

Mark K. Hicks, a currently practicing real estate and mortgage broker who has his own family real estate history to tell, says land and property ownership is tied to empowerment, because, well, money talks.

"I really believe in this because I really think that this is a way that we can create wealth for generations to come," said Hicks, owner-broker of The Seabrooke Group in San Jose, CA.

Hicks' father, Malcolm L. Hicks, was one of the first black "Realtists" a designation given to members of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, a real estate trade group comprised largely of blacks and other minority real estate professionals.

Hicks' father joined Dempsey Travis of Travis Realty Company in Chicago and author of "Real Estate Is The Gold In Your Future" (Urban Research Press, 1988) and Ernest Collins, 1965 founder of the Seaway National Bank (now Seaway Bank and Trust Co.), to help integrate Chicago's Southside by offering real estate and lending services to counter discriminatory lending and housing practices common in the area from the 1940s through much of the 1960s.

"His message was always 'Home ownership is the way to build wealth to take advantage of the American system'," said Hicks.

• Read more about African-Americans in real estate history.

"First black president in 'The House' " reveals just how deep real estate is routed in black history.

"White House Open House" offers a peak inside the First African-American Family's home.

© 2008 DeadlineNews.Com

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Broderick Perkins, an award-winning consumer journalist, parlayed 30 years of old-school journalism into a digital real estate news service, the San Jose, CA-based DeadlineNews Group -- DeadlineNews.Com, a real estate news and consulting service and Web site and the Deadline Newsroom, DeadlineNews.Com's news back shop. Perkins is also a National Real Estate Examiner. All the news that really hits home from three locations -- that's location, location, location!

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