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My Family’s Stolen Wealth – Liz’s Story

My ancestors made straw hats. “That’s how they got rich,” is how the family story goes, and so that’s how ​I​ got rich.
When I was a child, my family would drive the four hours from New Jersey to Baltimore several times a year. Both my mom’s parents and my dad’s parents lived in the city. We’d split the visit between the two sets of grandparents and all the extended family on either side.  All those years of visiting my wealthy grandparents and their relatives, I of course heard many compliments about Uncle L and Aunt E, how they took in a child who had gotten out of Nazi-occupied Europe; how well-loved they were by all the family; how the Passover seders that they hosted were filled with music, laughter, and good food.

There was also the oral story of the straw hat company that had done quite well across the generations.

My great-great grandfather had set up a hat-making business after he came to the U.S., and he passed what would be a successful family business onto his son, who passed it onto my great-uncle L and a cousin. The two of them eventually sold the hat company, but only after establishing successful contracts with the military during WWII and with JCPenney. I had presumed that my philanthropic uncle, who later I learned was a prominent Jew in Baltimore, was depicted as a fair and generous man, especially since Uncle L and his sister—my grandmother—had gone to a Quaker elementary school in Baltimore…. but Quakers too have not been truthful about their good works—a story for another time.

There are books and articles written about Uncle L and the straw hat company. I was sent a copy of a more recently published book shortly after he had died. The Jewish Museum of Maryland has many pieces of his music collection, family photographs, and much more. But there was something the museum and his surviving family members didn’t have—or at least, didn’t talk about or make public: Great Uncle L was a racist and was anti-union.

It took a professor at the University of Baltimore, writing about Jewish people and about business history in the city, to turn up a story about my family’s hat company. In this essay, published in 2008, is the ugly fact that my dear uncle L and his cousin—a partner in the business with him for several decades—had hung a sign in the shop that said “Negroes Need Not Apply.” (I actually think it was my working-class spouse who brought this article and that ugly sign to my attention.) Thankfully, it was also the women in the family—my uncle’s wife and his business partner’s daughter—who spoke up and insisted the sign had to come down, which it did.

There’s no way to know how many Black people were denied the opportunity to apply for work there, or how many were turned away after they ​were allowed to apply.

Something has been awoken in me—a yearning for reparations and for justice. I want to be transparent about the racist behavior and attitudes in my family that contributed to our multigenerational wealth. But also I want to make up for the lie of omission and for the real life lost wages—stolen wealth—in a tangible way. Maybe it’s been those disenfranchised Black workers who should have been invited to the seder whenever we visited at Passover. Maybe it’s their descendants who should be homeowners and grad students and free of debt…

In recent years, I’ve connected with Uncle L’s great granddaughter, who is doing important work in wealth redistribution and non-extractive financing. She and I have talked about how our families have hoarded wealth by setting up trust funds that keep the wealth predominantly within the family.  The land on which the hat company was built now has a Target store on it—and Target is basically paying rent to my family and relatives because it leases the land from my family’s predecessor’s estate, if I have that right.

I recently talked with my two brothers about the Stolen Wealth Returns project.  When I mentioned it’s to repay student loan debt held by Black organizers as a form of reparations, one of my brothers was quick to share he had recently read Ta Nehisi Coates’ article, A Case for Reparations. He wants to find an appropriate reparations project to participate in, and he wants to figure out how much earnings the would-have-been Black employees were denied by our great uncle.

Like me, something was awoken in my brother. It’s not full bore guilt that drives him and me to get involved. It’s a yearning for reparations and for justice.