A 1,000-watt grin breaks out on the face of Dr. Chester Redhead as he enters his garage and approaches his green and brown Rolls-Royce. He opens the front door to let the guest in and declares, “This is my baby.” I use this as my toy. A 1,000-bottle wine cellar is located in this black dentist’s Scarsdale, New York, home, which is on a quiet street.
Harold Doley, the first black person to hold a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, purchased a 35-room mansion that Madam C. J. Walker, the first black woman to become a billionaire in America, had originally built six years prior. From hair care products and beauty salons, she amassed a fortune. She caused quite a sensation when constructing the 20,000-square-foot home in Irvington, New York. In a Nov. 4, 1917, piece in The New York Times Magazine, a local was quoted as saying, “Impossible.” No woman of her ethnicity could afford such a location, it was said.
The Bronx’s Jacobi Medical Center’s chairman of surgery, Dr. Harry Delany, is the captain of a yacht club with a dozen other black doctors and attorneys. They sail up and down the East Coast under the name Rainbow Club.
In his recent book, “Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class,” Lawrence Otis Graham refers to these guys as being part of America’s black elite. $25; HarperCollins). The 37-year-old Mr. Graham, a Harvard Law School and Princeton University graduate, as well as the author of 12 other books, examines the college fraternities and sororities, adult social clubs, and summer resorts catered to the black aristocracy as exclusive settings alien to the black underclass, working-class, and white people of all classes.
For women, there are sororities like Alpha Kappa Alpha and organizations like the Links and the Smart Set; for men, historically black colleges have Omega Psi Phi, which boasts alumni like former Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder and Vernon Jordan, as well as organizations like the Guardsmen and the Boule. (Mr. Graham belongs to the Boule, which he claims is the hardest to break into.) There is Jack and Jill for kids, a network of social organizations that fosters African-American roots in primarily white suburbs. But wait before sending your résumé to any of these groups; membership is by invitation only.
The book “Our Kind of People” has received favorable reviews, and Mr. Graham has completed a press tour across the country. Institutions that seemed to operate in secrecy have now received more attention than ever thanks to the book. Mr. Graham conducts a tour of a neighborhood of summer homes in Sag Harbor, New York, where the black president of American Express lives next to the black owner of a Pepsi-Cola bottling plant and a black corporate headhunter. These fraternity houses have served as a first-power base for many politicians.
Much of this terrain is so foreign and lavish that it begs the question: Are these organizations the key to success for black professionals or politicians? Do they contribute to black people’s social and professional advancement in a previously underappreciated but crucial way? Do they represent an African-American old-boy (and old-girl) network?
Despite the fact that it is not their stated goal, Mr. Graham contends that they do. The majority identify as social clubs dedicated to hosting tea parties, backyard barbecues, and other social events. However, the author claims that these institutions aid in the maintenance of a black upper class, much as country clubs where golf is the pretense and building business contacts is the subtext, or charity galas where social climbing is as much on the agenda as giving.
He explains, for instance, how he contacted his contacts in Boule, a national organization of 4,000 notable African-American males when he was thinking about entering politics last year. According to Mr. Graham’s uncle, if your Boule buddies support you, people will know you’re for real, according to the book.
Despite my reluctance, I managed to get on the phone within a half-hour with some of the most powerful men in the nation; they were all very accomplished professionals and fellow members of a men’s organization that I had joined three years before. I should not have forgotten that almost every black mayor, congressman, banker, or millionaire belonged to this national group.
When he initially sought for government at the municipal level in New York City, former mayor David N. Dinkins, one of those notable Boule members, tapped into the network. Individual Boule members supported my candidacy, according to Mr. Dinkins. Some donated money, while others joined me on the streets to advocate. However, the Boule is not a political group, so they chose not to support me.
It is obvious that there is a black upper class if the definition of belonging to the upper class is just possessing a lot of money. African-American athletes and entertainers earn just as much money as their white colleagues do, and during the past ten years, black professionals and business owners have become more and more affluent. According to Census Bureau data, the number of black households earning $100,000 or more nearly quadrupled from 220,400 in 1988 to 414,500 in 1998.
But in keeping with the custom of pillars of white society like the Social Register, Mr. Graham uses the word “upper class” to refer to those who have much more than money.
It’s not only about the money, but he also declared. Where did this person’s granddad attend medical school is the question. In a particular city, how far back does the family go? Did you attend the proper boarding school and school? How old were the professionals in your family? Have they spent the summers in Sag Harbor and Oak Bluffs? What about your spouse?
Mr. Graham draws a comparison to a different group that would seem very different from the black elite. He is best known for confronting prejudice in an all-white country club in Greenwich, Connecticut. He did this by posing as a busboy, and his actions landed him on the cover of New York magazine. They are like black WASPs, Mr. Graham said over the phone from his spacious Chappaqua, New York, home. It contains a guest house, tennis courts, and a pool. He quit a corporate law business to pursue his writing and lecturing, and now he lives with his son and wife Pamela Thomas-Graham, a consultant and partner with McKinsey & Company.
Mr. Graham, who was raised in a wealthy White Plains family, has claimed he can’t recall a period when his kin were in need of money. His childhood included Jack and Jill skating events, riding lessons, and boating outings. He names the ideal cotillions, camps, and private schools for the black upper class in the book. According to Mr. Graham, the proper camp is Camp Atwater, a 70-acre expanse on Lake Lashaway in North Brookville, Massachusetts. The preferred boarding school in Palmer Memorial Institute in Sedalia, North Carolina.
While spending the summers in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard as a young kid, Mr. Graham recalls how the world of black privilege was so exclusive that “it never even occurred to me that white folks owned summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard.”
His assertion that there is a black upper class—defined by riches or as a powerful old-boy network—is challenged by others.
Sam Fulwood 3d, a Los Angeles Times reporter who covers race issues and is the author of “Waking From the Dream: My Life in the Black Middle Class,” claimed that there are no black Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, or Kennedys, families who have maintained tremendous wealth for centuries (Anchor, 1996). Members of the Boule, the Links, and Jack and Jill are irrelevant because they only represent a small portion of black America. It might be intriguing, but not any more so than the intriguing qualities of rare flowers.
If black people are aware of how we have been treated in this nation, he continued, “then they don’t need to be validated by some false construct like class.”
However, membership has been rising as the black upper-middle class has expanded. Since 1970, the number of Boule members has more than tripled. The Links began in 1946 with nine women in one chapter and now has 10,000 members spread across 270 branches. Additionally, the number of Jack and Jill chapters has increased by twofold in the past 20 years, from 80 to 220 and 30,000 family members, demonstrating the desire to connect wealthy black children with “the proper type of people.”
According to Barbara Brannen Newton, the executive director of Jack and Jill, who resides in Isle of Catalina, Florida, “the majority of calls I’ve received about Jack and Jill were from people who’ve moved to the suburbs, whose kids might go to a private school, and who are looking to have their children exposed to children with a similar culture and with similar goals.” We’re here to train up the next generation of leaders and teach them how to give back to the neighborhood.
The tight segregation era is when most of the institutions in “Our Kind of People” had their origins. College fraternities, adult clubs, and summer resorts resembled successful whites-only communities that forbade the presence of blacks. In order to provide college-educated black males with a place for intellectual discussion, the Boule was founded in 1904. In 1938, Jack and Jill were founded as a playgroup for kids from families who had relocated to the suburbs of Philadelphia.
Over time, many black people who were excluded from the groups grew to view them as snobby, and worse, as supporting unspoken requirements that members have fair skin and “beautiful hair,” similar to that of Caucasians. In Mr. Graham’s book, a few old-guard blacks who requested anonymity disparaged “new money” blacks.
However, there is little evidence to suggest that one’s wealth, hair color, or skin tone still matter. Psychiatrist and clinical professor at Harvard Medical School Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint observed, “I think the groups are considerably more equal than they used to be.” People in these organizations don’t just sit around disparaging the underprivileged, says one.
Dr. Poussaint was a previous Boule participant who quit due to scheduling conflicts. He was raised in the rough East Harlem district. I don’t come from a wealthy family, he declared. “And I entered.”
The institutions of Mr. Graham’s black upper class differ from their white counterparts in that they prioritize civil rights and assistance for less fortunate black people. Take the black sororities, A.K.A. and Delta,” Mr. Graham added, referring to these organizations’ members who frequently maintain tight bonds throughout their lives. Black sororities, according to him, have closer relationships with the least fortunate people in society. White sororities don’t envision themselves working in government. Black sororities perceive themselves as assisting family members or persons who resemble us and who require our financial assistance and mentoring.
Members of the boule are expected to mentor young people or generate money for scholarships. Additionally, the Links raised $1 million last year for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and $1 million for the United Negro College Fund.
The fact that Elaine Jones, the president of the legal defense fund, is a member of Links herself surely didn’t hurt when the club determined how to share cash, Mr. Graham said. This is an illustration of the networking and support that occurs among black elite clubs.
When asked if the purpose of the Links was to help members enhance their social and professional lives, Washington-based national president Barbara Dixon Simpkins said no. The majority of our members have already achieved success peak, she remarked. Among them are Texas Representatives Sheila Jackson-Lee and Eddie Bernice Johnson, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole, former District of Columbia Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, and Energy Secretary Hazel O’Leary. After some consideration, Ms. Simpkins asserted that networking does occur.
A member of the Links and Delta Sigma Theta, Dr. Joan Adams is an obstetrician-gynecologist with offices in Bronxville, New York, and Scarsdale, two of Westchester’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Peter, 10, and Annie, 17, are her children, and they play Jack and Jill. Additionally, one of the four traditionally black fraternities, Phi Beta Sigma, is led by her husband, lawyer Peter Adams.
Dr. Adams described her Links chapter as having meetings “sometimes three or more times a month.” Being around women with similar interests and mindsets is amazing. We occasionally gather for dinner and place an order. We have a bottle of wine and some cheese while chatting about our recent vacations. then begin working.