Commentaries on Black history tend to emphasize achievements by Black Americans as well as the historical injustices Blacks have endured for nearly 400 years. Often overlooked, however, are ways that Black historical figures can instruct Americans of all ethnicities in mundane virtues.
As an example, take personal savings. The current state of the economy calls for every individual to increase one’s level of savings to survive retirement as well as meet current needs. Exemplifying the virtue of savings are two characters in black history who saved in notable ways.
First, the context. A recent Wall Street Journal article reports that the median household headed by a person aged 60 to 62 with a 401(k) account has less than one-quarter of what is needed in that account to maintain its standard of living in retirement.
Amplifying the Journal’s message, economist Megan McArdle points out that people “counting on 8-10 percent annual returns on their investment portfolios to salvage their retirements are headed for trouble.” She recommends to all her readers a target savings rate of 20 percent to 25 percent of income.
McArdle’s sober suggestion may seem fanciful. Increased savings will mean an adjustment of level of consumption that most Americans expect. In addition, many are preoccupied with merely staying afloat due to debt and underemployment.
But consider the examples of Free Frank McWhorter and Oseola McCarty.
Born a slave in 1777, McWhorter’s owner often hired him out to other settlers. Employers liked the arrangement because they paid the slave less than they would free laborers. According to a National Park Service account, the slave was sometimes allowed to keep some of these earnings. McWhorter had a plan for what he earned and saved: To buy freedom for himself and his family.
First he purchased his wife Lucy’s freedom in 1817, when he was 32. Two years later he purchased his own freedom. As a freed man, McWhorter used his savings to purchase property in Kentucky. He also produced saltpeter and later developed a farm in Illinois. He sold the saltpeter operation in 1829 to purchase the freedom of his son, Frank, Jr. In 1835, he bought his son Solomon, out of slavery.
By his death at age 67, McWhorter had purchased freedom for all four of his seven children born in slavery, his daughter-in-law, and two enslaved grandchildren. His descendants purchased the freedom of additional relatives after his death. All told, McWhorter’s earnings and savings bought the freedom of 16 slaves at a cost of $14,000, equal to hundreds of thousands of dollars today.
McCarty dropped out of school during sixth grade, never to return. Born in 1908, she made a living washing and ironing clothes in Mississippi. She lived quietly and frugally, never owning a car, and never marrying. In 1995, after 75 years as a laundrywoman, she contacted the University of Southern Mississippi to donate $150,000 to scholarships for needy students. That amount was 60 percent of her savings, meaning she had accumulated more than $250,000.
Officials at the bank where she saved recall that she was adamant about 60 percent going to the university. The scholarships were a way to help others. McCarty told writer Sharon Wertz, “I can’t do everything, but I can do something to help somebody. And what I can do I will do. I wish I could do more.”
Of the lessons we can draw from these two remarkable savers, two are timely.
First, the savings of a single person can impact more than just that person’s immediate family. Beyond the people he freed, McWhorter became the first Black person to found a municipality in the United States, New Philadelphia, created to fulfill the vision of America as a land of liberty and justice for all. McCarty’s scholarship gift was matched by donors and provided scholarships for more students than she originally planned.
Second, any person in any circumstance can save large amounts. It’s hard to imagine tougher starting blocks than McWhorter’s. Buried in 1854, he died when slavery was still legal. And yet he saved and accumulated his entire life. His example could be used to put the average American to shame. But let’s use it instead as an encouragement to save more.
GRAND RAPIDS PRESS
Friday, February 25, 2011
GUEST COMMENTARY: A Black History lesson in saving
by Rudy Carrasco