6 myths about the history of Black people in America

Six historians weigh in on the biggest misconceptions about black history, including the Tuskegee experiment and enslaved people’s finances.

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To study American history is often an exercise in learning partial truths and patriotic fables. Textbooks and curricula throughout the country continue to center the white experience, with Black people often quarantined to a short section about slavery and quotes by Martin Luther King Jr. Many walk away from their high school history class — and through the world — with a severe lack of understanding of the history and perspective of Black people in America.

Last summer, the New York Times’s 1619 Project burst open a long-overdue conversation about how stories of Black Americans need to be told through the lens of Black Americans themselves. In this tradition, and in celebration of Black History Month, Vox has asked six Black scholars and historians about myths that perpetuate about Black history. Ultimately, understanding Black history is more than learning about the brutality and oppression Black people have endured — it’s about the ways they have fought to survive and thrive in America.

Myth 1: That enslaved people didn’t have money

Enslaved people were money. Their bodies and labor were the capital that fueled the country’s founding and wealth.

But many also had money. Enslaved people actively participated in the informal and formal market economy. They saved money earned from overwork, from hiring themselves out, and through independent economic activities with banks, local merchants, and their enslavers. Elizabeth Keckley, a skilled seamstress whose dresses for Abraham Lincoln’s wife are displayed in Smithsonian museums, supported her enslaver’s entire family and still earned enough to pay for her freedom.

Free and enslaved market women dominated local marketplaces, including in Savannah and Charleston, controlling networks that crisscrossed the countryside. They ensured fresh supplies of fruits, vegetables, and eggs for the markets, as well as a steady flow of cash to enslaved people. Whites described these women as “loose” and “disorderly” to criticize their actions as unacceptable behavior for women, but white people of all classes depended on them for survival.

Illustrated portrait of Elizabeth Keckley (1818-1907), a formerly enslaved woman who bought her freedom and became dressmaker for first lady Mary Todd Lincoln.  Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In fact, enslaved people also created financial institutions, especially mutual aid societies. Eliza Allen helped form at least three secret societies for women on her own and nearby plantations in Petersburg, Virginia. One of her societies, Sisters of Usefulness, could have had as many as two to three dozen members. Cities like Baltimore even passed laws against these societies — a sure sign of their popularity. Other cities reluctantly tolerated them, requiring that a white person be present at meetings. Enslaved people, however, found creative ways to conduct their societies under white people’s noses. Often, the treasurer’s ledger listed members by numbers so that, in case of discovery, members’ identities remained protected.

During the tumult of the Civil War, hundreds of thousands of Black people sought refuge behind Union lines. Most were impoverished, but a few managed to bring with them wealth they had stashed under beds, in private chests, and in other hiding places. After the war, Black people fought through the Southern Claims Commission for the return of the wealth Union and Confederate soldiers impounded or outright stole.

Given the resurgence of attention on reparations for slavery and the racial wealth gap, it is important to recall the long history of black people’s engagement with the US economy — not just as property, but as savers, spenders, and small businesspeople.

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