The Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University recently celebrated the spring semester’s conclusion by considering another period of heightened economic inequality: The Gilded Age.

During a lively panel discussion moderated by Dr. Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history and associate chair of the history department at Duke University, “The Black Elite and the Gilded Age: Race, Wealth, and Class” featured conversations on historical assumptions, hidden and ignored narratives, and the mechanisms through which racial economic inequalities have manifested and persisted.

Above all, the panel participants highlighted the nuance needed when discussing this time period, and the many perspectives contained therein, that arose on the heels of the Reconstruction Era.

“When teaching African American history, I never call it ‘The Gilded Age,'” said Dr. Erica Armstrong Dunbar, the Charles and Mary Beard Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University, whose work focuses on the lives of women of African descent living in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.

She noted that the majority of African Americans were left out of the wealth accrual denoted by the Gilded Age. “We usually refer to this period as ‘the nadir,’ in terms of race relations,” Dr. Dunbar said.

Seated next to Dr. Dunbar on the stage was Dr. Carla Peterson, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Maryland, College Park and the author of Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York (2012). 

The discussion, part of the Global Inequality Research Initiative (GIRI) capstone event for the 2022 spring semester, featured an interspersing of clips from the HBO show The Gilded Age, for which Dr. Dunbar is a co-executive producer and Dr. Peterson’s book provided much source material.

One powerful scene highlighted the attempts of (fictional) black writer Peggy Scott to get published–and the indignities inherent in that process. Dr. Peterson connected this to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s real-life struggles, in which white publishers would tell the great poet to write in demeaning, stereotypical dialect, rather than standard english.

Beyond demonstrating how an elite black woman would have opportunities closed on her due to her race and gender, the scene mostly underscored the strength of folks like Peggy in this period to push back and find success in spite of this type of injustice. “We see it, we acknowledge it,” said Dr. Dunbar, “and then we do what black people do to survive: We move on.”

Dr. Dunbar emphasized the novelty and the significance of a popular show merely featuring these long-absent perspectives of historical black elite. “We haven’t seen anything on TV that reflects this…it was an opportunity to upend our thinking around black families and black culture in that time,” she said. “We could open up a whole new world.”

The third panelist Dr. William A. “Sandy” Darity Jr. — the Cook Center’s founding director and the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics at Duke — expounded on a tale from Dr. Peterson’s book to explore the modern-day racial wealth gap.

The 1863 draft riots in New York City saw white mobs protesting their being drafted to serve in the Civil War to end slavery; they protested by destroying black property. Dr. Peterson tells of a family home that was assessed in 1862 as being worth $5,500. In July 1863, after three attempts by rioters, it was finally destroyed. “They deliberately struck at the heart of the black household,” Dr. Peterson writes in Black Gotham. “They attacked black property and wealth, which from their point of view could only have been ill gotten and illegitimate.”

The average rate of return on Wall Street stocks is nine percent, Dr. Darity said. But even at a modest five percent interest rate, that $5500 would be worth $13.5 million today. “It’s representative of the way these massacres destroyed black wealth and prevented the intergenerational transmission of wealth,” he said.

The evening’s program concluded with senior research associate Adam Hollowell recognizing the two undergraduate students, Noah Charlick and Gabriela Fonseca, who became the first to officially complete the Inequality Studies minor. Dr. Hollowell is the director of the minor, a six-course collaboration between the Center and Duke’s Department of History that was launched in spring 2021.

The Flickr album from the day’s events can be viewed here.