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The Briar Patch— Mortgaging humanity: Property values and the life of Wheeling Gaunt

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“Thought which emerges from the use of symbol and the symbolic can be called “speculative” or “imaginative” … Speculative thought is more akin to intuitive if not visionary modes of apprehension. Speculative thought attempts to explain, order and above all else unify the experience for the knower.” — Dr. Wade Nobles, Professor Emeritus, Department of Africana Studies, San Francisco State University.

When writing about the nightmarish and absolutely dehumanizing scenarios that people of African lineage have experienced and continue to endure within the United States, the use of speculation is almost always a tool by which many of us engage the reclamation of our humanity. Just as important, a community can recognize patterns of destructive repetition by tracing similarities to past events still unfolding in our current times. Maybe even ramping up.

Let us not broker any more illusions about this country and our community. We currently live in a country, in a community, that benefits from high property values at the expense of human lives. This should come as no surprise really; the current mortgage system is an amalgamation of an older and unjust economic system. This iteration of capitalism audaciously bundled enslaved human beings considered property into mortgage securities and sold them to investors. If you ever received a letter from a lender informing you that the mortgage on your home has been sold to another company, the old system has simply been rebranded to fit into our present moment. So much for reparations.

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What makes Yellow Springs unique is that we have a historical record that indicates an alternative way of engaging land ownership as exemplified in the life and legacy of Wheeling Gaunt. Before commencing with the distinctions, some background about Gaunt. His remarkable life makes it somewhat easy to generate a series of 21st-century social media sound- bytes. However, his experiences are more nuanced and complicated. Gaunt managed to transcend the brutal and oppressive economic system of slavery and ensuing financial speculation when he purchased his freedom and that of his family’s. 

Born enslaved in Kentucky in 1812, his mother sold away forever when he was four, Gaunt purchased his freedom when he was 32, along with that of his wife Amanda and a boy, Nick, for $900, $500 and $200, respectively. He acquired property in Kentucky before migrating during the Civil War to Yellow Springs, in the 1860s. As a resident, Gaunt purchased more property, houses that residents live in today. Gaunt evolved into a respected entrepreneur and philanthropist.

There is clear distinction between Gaunt’s humanitarian-based business structure, and the economic system of slavery upon which our mortgage system is based. Bundling enslaved people — captives — into securities had benefits for the slave owner. It decreased risk for the lender, while increasing the number of lenders willing to loan capital to landowners. An increase in cotton production resulted in sky-high profits from cotton sales to merchants in the North and England. Those profits came crashing down with the price of cotton during The Panic of 1836. The cost of cotton dropped steeply on the world market due to oversupply. The drop effectively burst the price bubble of cotton. This resulted in a steep drop in the “property values” of enslaved humans. Banks and other lenders suddenly called in the high debts of landowners solely dependent on cotton for their income. Tragically this resulted in yet another round of inhuman sales that forced thousands of enslaved Africans away from their families to cover the debts of their enslavers. Gaunt would have been considered at the prime of his financial “value,” as an enslaved man in his 20s. The financial crisis caused by the panic lasted into the 1840s, until around the time when Gaunt purchased his freedom.

As a historical comparison to our times, if this kind of financial speculation sounds remarkably similiar to the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 in your mind, then you’re right on target. 

As residents of Yellow Springs, we are inextricably linked to the legacy of Wheeling Gaunt. Our ancestor offers us lessons on “flipping” property towards an honorable purpose that can heal and provide sustenance to our community. As we turn our attention to the business of the day, we are fortunate to have documentation of his life to look upon for guidance. From the fate of Mills Lawn property to the development of housing more inclusive rather than exclusive, to people who want to live and work in our community, we can choose to create alternative economic models that make it possible.

Records indicate that Gaunt rented homes to other free men and women living in Yellow Springs at a fair rate. They show his investments in real estate-funded education including a $5,000 donation to Wilberforce University for its reopening after it closed during the Civil War. In 1894 before making the transition at the age of 82, Gaunt deeded nine acres of land to the Village. The crops raised on the land were harvested and distributed to the widows of the village without regard to race. While Gaunt was doing all of this, it could not have been lost on him that his body was once considered property and possibly mortgaged. Perhaps this was on his mind every time he purchased a piece of land in our community. History reflects that Gaunt truly lived his life according to his immortal words: “It is not what we have but what we share.”

One-hundred-and-twenty-six years later, the village continues to give flour to widows during the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Widowers and sugar were added years later. Gaunt’s nine acres were transformed into a community park named after him. Most of us who grew up in Yellow Springs swam or played sports there and thousands have gathered over the years to view fireworks on the Fourth of July. One should not miss the irony of watching fireworks celebrating the liberation of the United States from the British while sitting on land that had been owned by the formerly enslaved Gaunt. (Read the essay “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” written by his friend and abolitionist Frederick Douglass for further enlightenment.)

At the end of the day when we examine our plans for Yellow Springs as a community, one question should sit at the forefront. The words taken from a play written by the great and mighty poet Sonia Sanchez ask, “Uh Huh, But How Do It Free Us?” To which we should add, all of us?

Author’s Note: “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery in the Making of American Capitalism” further details the Panic of 1836.

Born and raised in Yellow Springs, Durgans is a mixed-media artist, arts administrator, adjunct professor, licensed massage therapist and herbalist in training.

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