Personal Reparations 2: Black Wealth, White Saviorism, and H.R. 40

For Part 1 of this story, click here.

Last week I caught a red eye to Hilton Head, spent a day recovering, and then my mother, step-father and I drove the 40 miles southwest to Port Wentworth, Georgia, to meet up with my cousin Koelker and his wife, and then with Randy Quarterman and his family — descendants of a man my great-great-great-grandfather, George Adam Keller, had once enslaved and then given reparations land to, which I’ve written about here.

I was both excited and nervous. I had spent the last month relishing my new, remarkable friendship with Randy. We’d shared photos and stories of our respective families. We’d strategized and researched and been on a conference call together in preparation for our upcoming trip to the Living Cities board meeting in New York. We’d written personal narratives to swap and admire. We’d discussed everything from southern strictures to national politics and organized religion. Finding one another had been so critically timed with Randy’s efforts to save his family land that he often said he knew God had brought us together. I called it good research and serendipity, and felt compelled to explain while I respect all religious beliefs, I don’t believe in organized religion or God as He is typically defined. But when Randy replied that he defined God as Love, it was easy for me to agree that this was the force that had brought us together. In the past few weeks my life had felt more open and generous. It had been filled with more joy, and more love. Even my relationship with my own mother, whom I was already very close to, felt deeper. More, I felt optimistic about the future of America, and about human connection in general, in places where before I had begun to…not. But what if we met and it all fell apart? What if I offended him or his family in some way, or crossed some line, or couldn’t handle what I found out? I tried not to place too much emphasis on what I felt. This is not about me, I told myself. But it was of course, at least partially, and it was still fraught.

Once in Port Wentworth, we got in my cousin’s truck to drive along Monteith Road and the surrounding local land. Koelker pointed out properties and locations where the family plantations — Salem, Coldbrook, Drakies — used to be. This is where the old house at Salem was. This is where the Orrs bought property. That is where the Hester house was and I hear they still own it. All this was part of Coldbrook.

We drove along to the family cemetery at North Salem Baptist Church, to visit the graves of my grandparents, from two generations up to great-great-great-great, and of Mum Rachel, the “faithful servant” whom George Adam Keller had once enslaved, whose plain headstone bumped up against the brick wall and small gate. We drove around to the old dirt road, now blocked off by the Georgia Ports Authority, that used to lead to Drakies Plantation, where my mother spent many months being cared for by relatives while her mother was given early-stage electroconvulsive shock therapy and time in the hospital to “rest her nerves.” We drove past White Oak Baptist Church, an original Savannah River Praise House that used to sit on the land at Drakies before my ancestors owned it, and past the convenience store in the T of the road. “This is the Black settlement called Monteith,” Koelker said.

My mother remembered driving here with her grandfather, W.W. Keller Jr., who often went by “Bill.” Once, they’d driven off Drakies and come upon a small alligator in the road. Her grandfather killed the gator, tossed it in the cab of the truck with her to her horror, and then delivered it directly to a Black man at a gas station in Monteith. Mighty fine, Cap’n Bill! she remembered the man saying. “I don’t know,” she said now, “but I think he was grateful for the meat.”

The night before, I’d found a deed from 1921 in the bottom of a box of my grandmother’s old things. The deed was not explicitly for the ten acres of the Quarterman heirs’ property, land for which we could find no official deed, but it was significant because it mentioned the Quarterman property in legal language and fact. This deed was regarding another ten-acre tract of land near Monteith that George Adam Keller had given to someone named Ellick Sandrich. I had heard tales of another land grant to another formerly enslaved man before, but had no idea to whom. I could only assume that Ellick Sandrich was the same “beloved” enslaved man the Keller family called “Daddy Ellick.”

The deed also showed that unlike the Quartermans, who still had (but were losing) possession of their reparations land in 2019, the Sandrich family had lost the land within one generation, in 1921 after an auction sale, and that they had lost it back to the Kellers. I wanted to know why the Sandrich family lost this land and where their descendants were now. I wanted to know the ways in which my family’s history played out compared to the ways in which the descendants of people my family had enslaved played out, not only immediately following the end of chattel slavery and in the generation after, but in the full 150 plus years since emancipation, up to today. I wanted to know how our story reflected the story of the nation, and to study the ways in which it was a personal example of the broader need to study national, political reparations.

When I say that I know in my bones that reparations are due I am talking about carrying the trauma my ancestors witnessed and meted out in my DNA, and also about the systemic racism I witness personally today. When I say that I support national reparations now what I am really saying is that I want our government to finally agree to study the effects of slavery and systemic racism and what reparations for it might look like, and that I want my fellow white Americans to support that too.

I’m talking about H.R. 40, a bill that would establish a commission to study the effects and after effects of slavery and Jim Crow and beyond, and determine who, if anyone, should pay for things such as land grants, monetary payouts, and acknowledgement and healing through things like education and commemoration. The H.R. 40 bill does not authorize giving anything to anybody, at least not yet. Passing the bill in the House and the Senate would simply allow us to study reparations, just as we study the water or air.

I can’t believe that whether or not to pass the bill is even still a debate. Or maybe I can believe it, and just wish I couldn’t. According to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research Poll conducted in September 2019, 75% of Black Americans believe that the U.S. federal government should officially apologize and pay reparations. Only 15% of white Americans believe this. I want to assume this is the case because the majority of white Americans just don’t know why the conversation surrounding reparations is critical. I know that many white Americans don’t want to know or admit to the truth: that reparations, of course, would not just be for slavery but for the continued unconstitutional discrimination our government perpetuated against African Americans, and the systemic racism that still fuels our institutions that has resulted in the racial opportunity and wealth gulf today. In 2019, the five largest landowners in America, all white, own more rural land than all of Black America combined. African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the population but own less than 1 percent of rural land in the country. White people own more than 98 percent of the land in the country. In 1962, two years before civil-rights legislation and the Great Society program, the average wealth of white households was seven times greater than that of black households. Today, that ratio remains the same. The median family wealth for white people is $171,000, compared with just $17,600 for black people. It is worse on the margins. According to the Economic Policy Institute, 19 percent of black households have zero or negative net worth. And, at every level of the wage distribution, median Black wages are 73.3 percent of white wages (“State of Working America Wages 2018,” Economic Policy Institute).

I also know that many white people do know these things, or want to know them. And they want them to change. If you understand that race is a social construct and believe that no race is superior to another — that humans of all races are equally intelligent, able, and worthy, then you must believe that the racial wealth and opportunity gap is due to long-standing and continuing systemic racism. There is no other way this happens. If you do believe some races are superior to others, well, then that’s a whole other deal.

A half hour before our meeting time with the Quartermans, I left Koelker and my mother and drove to the Food Lion to buy some flowers, wondering what sort of arrangement was appropriate to offer the descendants of a man one’s ancestor once enslaved.

Luckily there was only one choice. I propped the gallon sized mason jar of wildflowers tied with a purple bow in the passenger seat next to me and drove slowly, past Koelker’s house, and then past the Quarterman’s house as well, to make sure I had the address right. I drove a ways down the road until I could find a spot to turn back around. As I did, I questioned for the first time why I had set this meeting up. Was it more to help the Quarterman family, or to clear the Keller name? Was “help” problematic here in every shape and way?

White saviorism refers to the acts of white people who help non-white people that appear to be for self-serving reasons, the main reason being to absolve white people of guilt or shame, or prove their own goodness. I was sensitive to the lure of it. I was not under the false impression that I was saving anyone. Randy Quarterman could and did advocate for himself. I did not feel shame or guilt — shame is paralyzing, and unproductive — I felt inspiration. I hoped I was being respectful. Am I overstepping? I asked frequently as we worked together to email county officials and tried to get legal advice. Do you want my help here or should I hold back? I didn’t feel guilt, I felt hope. But the questions of whom I was doing this work for and why unavoidably produced multiple answers. I reassured myself that my intent was to bring truth to light about the racial wealth and opportunity gap and the need for a conversation about reparations, and to help the Quartermans save and use the land they owned, not to prove my worth or to prop up my latest writing project. I also heard a small voice beneath saying: “but maybe this does make you a better person,” and “you know, you could write about this too.”

At this point I could tell you about meeting Randy and his two uncles and two aunts, and the way they were open and generous and made me feel right at home. I could tell you about the lovely little white church that they’d built in front of the main house on their well-tended lawn where we met. I could tell you about how, after Koelker showed up with his wife, my mom, and my step-dad, my cousin educated us about the questionable local political and real estate ties, about how to demand fair value for the land being taken by eminent domain, and why the Quartermans needed to immediately secure curb cut access to their property from the new parkway. I could tell you that Randy’s uncle Andrew Jr., a man a generation older than mine, sat in the pew in front of me, shook his head and mumbled that this was no little game. “Be careful,” he said to me and smiled. “Remember I said be careful?”

I smiled back and said: “I will, and you’re right.”

I could tell you about the way that I learned it wasn’t my grandmother, or anyone else related to me, that had locked the Quartermans out of their land. I could tell you about all that and more but no way of telling it can compare to the way that it felt. I can tell you this: time flew as we talked and eventually we all hugged one another and said goodnight.

The next day, Randy came from work dressed in his Army uniform and met my family and Patt Gunn on River Street to follow Sistah Patt on her Underground Tour of Savannah titled “Slaves in the City.” (If you’re in Savannah, GO. In fact, go to Savannah just for this tour.) We met — descendants of enslavers and of the enslaved — in front of the African-American monument, a statue that depicts a family of four embracing after emancipation while broken chains representing slavery lie at their feet. They look out over the Savannah River, toward Africa, to the East.

Patt Gunn is a powerful activist, a colorful and captivating storyteller, and a major life force and spreader of wisdom and joy (see her TED Talk here). Patt was already involved with Randy and me in our fight for the heirs’ land, and was also helping us think toward grander plans: how to use the heirs’ land, and other land in Monteith, for education and Black wealth building; and how to encourage more descendants of enslavers and the enslaved to find one another and meet for reconciliation and healing. After this day she would become increasingly critical to our efforts, and even more engaged.

Patt showed up in a tan dress, a traditional head wrap, enviable iridescent purple lipstick, and some killer frameless sunglasses I had to restrain myself from asking if I could try on. As she and her partner, Sistah Roz, walked side by side with my family and Randy, they whispered, shouted, and spoke truth, infusing their speech with the beautiful Gullah language as they explained the slave industry in Savannah, the history of all that had taken place in just a few short river blocks, and led us down lanes and into dark, highly charged caves where humans were trafficked, held and prepared, and then sold. In those caves they did not stand quietly. They danced and they sang.

“See the nails in the wall?” Patt said at one point. Roz pointed out the small looped iron pieces embedded in brick with her walking stick. “This was where they were chained and whipped.” Patt explained that at one time the city had hired regular employees to station this wall so that folks could bring their “misbehaving slaves” out of earshot and sight of their property to have someone else man the whip. “There is a particular spot,” she said, “where the bricks indent and a pregnant woman could fit.”

A few moments later we stood outside of the red brick — faded almost to salmon — Cotton Exchange facade just above River Street, and Patt lifted us back up. She pointed out the exquisite Ghanian Andinkra symbols that enslaved workers had crafted into the decorative iron work — symbols I’ve seen in gates and balconies in Savannah my whole life but been ignorant about — as part of a system to communicate love, hope, and healing among one another. A particularly beautiful and popular heart-shaped Andinkra symbol is Sankofa, which is said to literally translate as “look to the past to inform the future.”

One of Patt’s main goals in acknowledgement and truth telling is to get historical markers put up in Savannah, a city where slavery thrived, and yet there is almost zero public recognition of it. As we stared at the Ghanaian reminder that slavery should be acknowledged rather than forgotten in order to move forward productively, Patt explained that the only historical marker here, along this street, where Sherman’s March to the Sea ended and the first emancipation of enslaved people in Savannah occurred had been a commemorative bench that said: “Here sat Forrest Gump.”

I turned to my mother. “This is ridiculous,” she said, our eyes all the way open at last. “We have to make sure Savannah does better than that.”

Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of this story can be found by clicking these links