A History Lesson on the Importance of History Lessons

At Take on Wall Street, we agree with the “Father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson, that “The conditions of today have been determined by what has taken place in the past.” This sentiment holds true for everyone, but for those of us working for social justice, it is critical. That’s because the famed saying is wrong: Ignorance is not bliss; it is dangerous.

We cannot effectively counter the challenges we face today if we are unaware of their origin. That’s why our popular education program works so hard to provide historical context about how the finance industry has repeatedly hampered the broader movement for racial, gender, and economic justice. We’ve trained hundreds of organizers and activists all across the country in how corporations have rigged the rules for themselves and how we can fight back.

We think it’s important that people examine how capitalism in the United States would not exist without land stolen from Indigenous people or the free labor of enslaved people. When the Civil War began, the market value of slaves was $3 billion—more than that of banks, factories, and railroads combined.

Not only did enslaved people build the wall for which Wall Street was later named, but the wealth Wall Street is known for sprang from fields worked by Black laborers in the south. Thanks to financing, insuring, and shipping cotton, New York gained 40% of all cotton revenue. And that revenue was substantial. By the 1830s, 77% of the cotton used in the British textile industry came from the United States.

With emancipation, Black people were still unable to benefit from the wealth they created. Not only did President Andrew Johnson revoke the promise of 40 acres and a mule to freed Black families, but systems were put in place to deny any economic security for the formerly enslaved. Black Codes in 1870 charged Black entrepreneurs $100 for business licensing fees. White people were charged nothing. Since Social Security initially excluded domestic and agricultural workers, 70-80% of Blacks in the South had no access to that safety net.

These very conscious decisions in how freed slaves would be treated and whether or not they would be invited into or excluded from the economy necessarily reverberate today. Dr. Woodson recognized this nearly 100 years ago, when he emphasized, “It is not a question as to what the teacher or leader of a group may think about things but what the person taught will think about them when he has learned the facts for himself. Every person under instruction must be given credit for having sense enough to make an inference. Facts set properly forth will tell their own story.”

At TOWS, during Black History Month and every day, we help elevate facts and counter myths because we believe that truth matters. We think that people who believe that the 2007-08 financial crisis was caused by redlining, as was recently suggested by Michael Bloomberg, will make different policy suggestions than those who rightly blame deregulation.

Upon Carter G. Woodson’s death, Mary McLeod Bethune, a famed educator in her own right, eulogized him by writing, “With the power of cumulative fact he moved back the barriers and broadened our vision of the world, and the world’s vision of us.” If you, too, believe in the power of cumulative fact, join TOWS, and help build a financial system that puts working people ahead of Wall Street greed.

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