The gesture by billionaire Robert F. Smith reverberates beyond the 396 young men who learned at their graduation last Sunday from Morehouse College that Smith is picking up the tab for their college loans.

Early estimates are that Smith’s gift amounts to about $10 million, or about $25,000 per graduate. Critics of Smith are correct that $10 million is a drop in the bucket of a man who has made $5 billion buying and selling tech stocks.  It’s less than 2/10th of 1 percent.

But this isn’t about whether our system has been twisted to benefit those who buy and sell without adding anything to the economy, and it isn’t about whether our system is damaged by depending on the largesse of the super rich.

This is about two other points. One is that 396 men, most of them black, can begin work or professional or graduate school without debt. One grad interviewed at the Morehouse commencement said he had figured he would be paying $1,000 a month for his loans.

The larger point I took was that Smith’s gesture may signal that the black middle-class is coming back. Yes, back. One unintended casualty of the civil-rights movement and the integration that followed had been the fading of a black middle class that had grown up after white mobs destroyed reconstruction in the late 19th and early 20th century.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates has shown us on PBS a savage history of what happened after emancipation. He showed that John Wilkes Booth killed more than a president when he shot Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. When Lincoln died the next morning, so did the possibility that blacks might move into America’s mainstream, especially in the south.

Lincoln disastrously had chosen as vice-president Andrew Johnson, a Tennesseean, a Democrat and an open racist. After Johnson succeeded Lincoln, he issued 7,000 pardons to rebel officials and large landowners. This allowed many of them to return to power.

Johnson’s Reconstruction was strikingly lenient. Still-powerful whites subjugated freed slaves via harsh laws known as the black codes. Johnson opened the door for massive resistance, a simmering white rebellion against the very idea of equality. The next 80 years saw retaliation and eventually the only honest-to-God coup d’etat in U.S. history.

That came on Nov. 10, 1898, in Wilmington, North Carolina, when a white mob led by a former U.S. representative attacked a black newspaper office. The riot destroyed the black neighborhood, killed at least 60 people. The mob installed itself in city hall, with the ex-congressman as mayor, replacing a Republican, moderate, integrated government.

Something similar but even more deadly happened 23 years later in Tulsa when a white mob invaded Greenwood, a black neighborhood so prosperous that signs on the street declared Greenwood “the Black Wall Street.” When the smoke cleared June 1, 1921, at least 119 people had been killed, and 1,256 homes had been torched.

In Wilmington and Tulsa, a top-to-bottom black economy had developed. Black men wore three-piece suits. Black women wore high lace-up boots. In other places, the black middle-class grew, but separately from the white.

Most of us were taught in school that Lincoln freed the slaves. Then we were taught nothing more about black America. So, when we saw black folks struggling 80 or 100 years later, we concluded that they hadn’t handled freedom very well. I can’t begin to tell you how often I have heard that idea expressed, openly in the south, less so in the north.

What we are not taught is that blacks in the south were making great progress during reconstruction and kept up the struggle after reconstruction was destroyed. And when their progress angered whites, as in Wilmington and Tulsa, whites sometimes attacked.

Think how different history might be had Lincoln kept his vice-president and Hannibal Hamlin of Paris and Bangor had become president in 1865.

We lived from 1969 through 1971 in Nashville, a mile or so from a solidly middle-class black neighborhood. The folks who lived there taught at Fisk University or Meharry Medical College, maybe owned or worked in a neighborhood bank or a small insurance company. Some were dentists, physicians, lawyers.

With the integration that followed the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the Supreme Court, this black middle class began to disappear. Not because it was inferior but mostly because it was overwhelmed numerically as it moved into the majority culture and because many in the white culture still defied the legitimate advances in civil rights.

It was vital that America throw out the bath water of segregation, water so dirty that we sometimes couldn’t even see our ideals through it. But we might have been more careful to save the baby, finding ways to underpin rather than undermine the black middle class.

As black folks have moved through not-always-open doors into the larger culture, they have pursued the pursuits of the majority culture. So, 65 years and two days after Brown vs. Board of Ed, Robert F. Smith could become a beneficent billionaire. ‘Bout time.

That’s the lesson I took from Robert F. Smith’s gift to the men of Morehouse.

Give Smith the final words, from his challenge to other successful black people. “Let’s make sure every class (at Morehouse) has the same opportunity going forward, because we are enough to take care of our own community,” he said. “We are enough to ensure we have all of the opportunities of the American dream and we will show it to each other through our actions and through our words and through our deeds.”

Bob Neal shares two names with Robert F. Smith.  His first two given names are Robert Smith. There the similarities end, but Bob Neal deeply respects Smith’s act at Morehouse


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