A Bridge to Where?
“I didn’t tell you about my family? I thought I told you about them.”
I felt it was a strange question that he was asking. It was our second meeting. The way he asked the question had me on high alert for what was next.
My response was slow and questioning.
“You didn’t. What do you think you told me about them?”
He described the property that his family owned off one of the major highways. I knew the community and the red barn he said marked the property. The barn and the property were large, a landmark anyone near the community and that stretch of highway would have known. The town near upstate New York was one that I had visited more than once and had driven by more times than I could remember. It was a quaint sleepy community. It reminded me of the island where I had grown up, minus a water feature. He talked about finding his grandfather’s Klan robes as an adult and asking his grandfather about them.
A member of the Klu Klux Klan, his grandfather had worked in the banking industry in that community. He recounted how his grandfather’s responsibility had been to deny home loans and other types of loans to blacks, and under no circumstance was anyone to sell a house to a black family. He explained how each member of the Klan where his grandfather held membership had a role at his day job to make sure that blacks were kept out of the community and away from the resources they sought.
I was curious and had never had the opportunity to ask questions to someone this close to the Klan freely. “Did you know that he was a member of the Klan before you found the robes?”
He paused before answering, “I suspected because sometimes he said some things, but sometimes everyone said things….” His voice trailed off as he continued talking about his family and their role in maintaining the bridges that some were allowed to cross. In contrast, others were denied access to the bridge even while the fire behind them was consuming the ground.
Historically, home/property ownership has existed as a bridge to greater economic opportunity and economic stability, leading to building wealth for families. Individuals and families denied homeownership opportunities were denied the opportunity to build generational wealth. It was legal, and it had a name, redlining. A product of the New Deal, Redlining denied Blacks homeownership opportunities in certain neighborhoods. In places where it wasn’t explicitly law, it was the unspoken rule of the day.
If the bridge was opened for blacks to cross, it was only after the bridge had become unstable due to the fire licking at the ropes and the wood keeping it anchored. Or, sometimes, it was only after the bridge was entirely consumed by the fire that blacks were allowed to cross, i.e., the refusal of the FHA to support/insure mortgages in/near black neighborhoods, subprime mortgages, and denial of VA housing benefits to Black soldiers. Redlining didn’t keep only our living spaces segregated but created segregated churches, many remaining segregated today.
I thought about some of the places I had served in ministry. In one church, the board chair let me know in a meeting with my District Superintendent, wherein I was present, that he had been more than willing to call me the N-word to anyone who would listen. Following that appointment, I led a church that, under my predecessor, had legal action brought against it for racial discrimination.
The reality is that white supremacy poisons every aspect of our lives; our institutions, relationships, and the church. The other truth is that our choices matter. Each day, we choose whether to perpetuate the poisonous systems or work on creating treatments that will end the active poisoning in our society.
The legacy left behind by redlining and other racists/white supremacist policies continues to affect us today. As intentional, organized, and systemic as white supremacy was, our response as the church and the nation must be intentional, organized, and systemic. Through this work, we will begin to build intentional bridges that will carry us into Beloved Community.
By Rev.Dr. Michelle Lewis