I Became My Own: Wealth

A conversation of Black wealth that isn’t centered around capital gains

By Shanize Byrd

We began our conversation with what may seem like a simple question to some, but I personally have found it to be a loaded one; the “who are you” question. But I asked her anyway, “Who is Whitney?” She paused for a moment and her eyes drifted off camera, as if she was searching through her own personal archives to gather her history. What I found very refreshing and unique about her response is that it wasn’t filled with decorative titles and credentials. Not one mention of occupations or affiliates. She described herself to be something like a manifestation that was professed by a lineage of Black and Indigenous people. A poetic justice for the redemption of her ancestors. A resemblance of Black freedom fighters whom she never met in person, but feels a deep connection to them. She rounded out her response with a beautiful phrase, “I am just a spiritual human being in this flesh, but I am having an earthly experience and I am still figuring it out; who I am.” By this description alone, I could tell that this would be a very textured, intentional and meaningful conversation around Blackness and wealth. Not one filled with cookie-cutter “how-to’s” or cliche quotes about becoming a millionaire. She was about to take me on a journey to a place, where she discovered roots that would eventually grow into something bountiful and abundant for her and other Black people.

Whitney Henderson is an East St. Louis, IL native, who currently resides in  her beloved Central City of New Orleans. We met through a mutual friend’s wedding a few years back and she was just as humble and inviting then. I remember conversing with her at the reception and could tell she wasn’t your average individual, she carried something extraordinary in her presence. We followed one another on social media and I saw where she was also a former educator and leader in the New Orleans public schools. She has simplistic, yet beautiful and alluring posts that have these very heartfelt messages about her personal journey. At a glance, you will see that Henderson is unapologetic about her heritage and has a passion for spreading its gospel. What really captivated me was her updates on property she acquired and profits she was building through real estate. It wasn’t the same enjoyment I experience when I watch just about anything on HGTV; it was something greater. Witnessing her flip properties and always tying it to a message of “liberation” would agitate you around the concept of legacy and wealth. I saw in her Instagram bio, she has a quote “strengthening Black communities through education, real estate and enterprise”. I asked Whitney what it meant to her and what it looked like in practice.

“I’m someone who really really cares about the education of our people, the education of our communities. I truly believe that education is the great equalizer in so many ways.”

Henderson began teaching at the age of 20 years old, straight out of college, in a classroom with students who were only four years her junior. She shared how her first year in the classroom, witnessing her students struggle to meet basic needs, shaped her identity and influenced her to want to lead a charge of empowering more Black communities with education. Though she may have not been too far removed from her student’s generation, she made it her mission to instill wisdom in them; helping them to imagine a world advanced from their reality. Whitney drew inspiration from prominent Black figures, like Frederick Douglas, who used minimum resources to empower themselves with knowledge in order to shift their trajectory. She went on to explain her interpretation of enterprise, which drew me in closer to her mind. I sat center stage hearing her beautifully orate her thoughts on how she wants more Black people to honor their life’s purpose and personal brand as a business; a way to build wealth. The context in which she used wealth was not synonymous with money, like you normally hear in conversations of capitalism jargon.

“We have to see ourselves as businesses. Our brand, our personal being is a business. You walk around this Earth with a purpose and you’re constantly meant to promote it; whatever that is. Then, to transfer that into wealth. Notice that I didn’t say money.”

Henderson believes that Black people need to think in more terms of enterprise

She would later describe her definition of wealth, but she continued by breaking down her mission to advance Black communities through real estate. I’m not going to lie, when I started to notice the wave of Black folks flipping properties, I was enticed by the profits they were making on them. But, Whitney said that money wasn’t the motivation for her. Living in Central City, which is a historically prominent Black occupied community, she began to notice the changes. The type of changes Spike Lee passionately speaks about when describing the shift in his borough of Brooklyn; gentrification.  Henderson wanted to play an active role in preserving the culture and accessibility to Black people, in her community. 

“When I looked around the community, I was concerned with how the community was changing. I was concerned about the community excluding people who had been here since… been. When I think about real estate, I got into it because I truly wanted a culture of our blocks and neighborhoods to be seen by and with the people who have been here since forever.”

She lets it be known that she has no problem being held accountable if her words turn into performative actions rather than moves that actively create systemic change. At this point, I am hanging on every single syllable that is flowing from her mouth. Especially when she speaks of revelations of her work being in alignment with the Black Panther Party’s “10-Point Program”. I’m listening to her, but simultaneously I am reflecting about myself, my journey and how I am aligning my life’s work with those who I’ve marveled, like Bobby Seale & Huey P. Newton. I wanted to know more about how she defines wealth because thus far, I hadn’t heard much about dollar bills and bank accounts.  Whitney stood firmly on her ideals when she explained to me that wealth is freedom to her. Take a moment to let that sink in for a moment before we move on.

“I think about wealth as this infinite possibility of freedom. And I really want to emphasize freedom.”

What she shared with me next, I’m sure would make most quiver in fear and some ignited with fire. Whitney graciously confessed that in two months  she is walking away from her six-figure job; in the middle of our pandemic. She’s quite aware of the risk, but it’s one she is more than willing to take because she sees her freedom being at stake. I was honored when she named me as one of the women who inspires her to maintain her concept of wealth.

“You go out there…you have this idea, this concept that is very core and centered to who you are and you want to share that ministry with the world. That’s wealth to me. Doing something you love that is unbound to clock in. When I think about the possibilities of it, I get giddy as hell because I’m like ‘yeah I’m walking away from six-figures but at the end of the day I’m  about to be wealthy as hell!”

Whitney provides her definition of wealth is not centered around capital gain

Whitney doubled down by saying that wealth is being able to have the freedom to have full reigns on how you use  your time and maximize your gifts. She made it clear that her desire to leave her job is to achieve wealth, in these terms, not due to unhappiness. Henderson also wanted to clarify that she is well aware that an aspect of wealth, especially when living in a capitalistic society, does involve money.​​ Money just doesn’t circumb what wealth means to her. Like I mentioned, her responses were making me reflect in real time. I thought about how I am constantly grappling with my own concept of wealth and the traumas that influences it. In the spirit of transparency, I let her know that I have some fears, especially around making an abundance of money. My father’s behavior and trauma responses made my household an environment of constant survivor mode. He fears not being able to survive or provide so much that it made him hoard a lot of money. One of my greatest fears is to repeat the cycle. I was curious to know about Whitney’s background and how it influenced her perception of wealth.  Similarly, she grew up in a household with a parent who was also operating from a place of survivor mode.

“What I learned about wealth was through my mom, too, and my experience growing up in her household.”

She explained to me how her mother has been a long-term secretary in medical records at a hospital, back in her hometown. Her mother is the longest-working employee at the hospital, 49 years to be exact, and currently makes $11.15 per hour. But, like many Black folk, especially Black women, she made due with the wages. Whitney layouts how her mother made a “unliveable” wage into something they could survive off and meet basic needs. Mama had a set menu each week, which included rice & beans Mondays, pork & beans Tuesdays and spaghetti Wednesdays (how many of y’all can relate?) Though I didn’t grow up in a household where wages weren’t liveable, I saw how both of our parents shared similarities in how they approached spending money. 

“My mom’s understanding of wealth was, ‘when I get my paycheck I spend the very minimal to help my family survive and I put the rest away.’ To the point where she is up for retirement and when I was home with her for a couple of months, she was showing me some of her documentation. I was like ‘mama you got like over six figures saved, this is incredible, this is amazing.’ And then I was like, ‘damn, you could have invested this money.”

I felt that in my core because my father is the same. He recently retired and has relatively a significant amount of money saved up in his accounts. I, too, have had moments of frustration when thinking about it because I know had a sum of the money been properly invested in real estate or small businesses, our family could have generations worth of wealth. Whitney and I both show grace and compassion towards our parents because we know that they were socialized to believe that wealth can only be achieved by hoarding money and being in survival mode. But, we choose to debunk that myth by leading our own journeys to building wealth and intentionally spreading resources. One way she is doing that is through real estate. 

I thought it was intriguing that she got into real estate by “accident”, as she phrases it. But then I am learning some of our greatest feats are the ones we didn’t anticipate being a part of our plan. Whitney bought her first home at 24 years old on the side of the town that she remains in until this day. A few years later, she thought about selling the home and when she contacted a realtor, they told her a shocking value of its worth in eight years. Not well versed in real estate yet, she at least knew that this home was a great investment worth keeping for a while. She embraced communal living by renting out rooms in her home to at least two roommates at a time, which helped her pay off the mortgage, split bills and save a significant amount of money. 

“I am such a firm believer that Black people need to really embrace communal living. Let me tell you the benefits of living with four people, five people, six people. You can save your money!”

One time, she attended a Christmas party and overheard some guests talking about a new company called AirBnB and how it provided lucrative opportunities. After doing some research, she learned how she could use her extra bedrooms as a way to allow visitors to come and enjoy her home experience. The idea of strangers from distant lands staying in her home was not foreign to her. She said bringing people into her home and providing an enriched experience is something she has done her entire life. 

 After six years of renting rooms and using her space as an AirBnB property, Whitney paid off her home and was able to make a significant profit once she sold it. She specifically wanted it to go to a Black family. Though she received a lower offer from the Black family, in comparison to a White bidder, it was more important to her to give this family an opportunity of ownership and allow them to remain in the community. Energized by the overall experience, she embarked on a journey of buying more homes, in her community and other Black communities. Whitney talked about leaving large money bags on the table, in order to ensure that Black families were buying these houses and preserving the culture of those communities. She expressed that she sees herself in the little Black girls, who come with their families to the open houses. She wants them to have more than what she had at their age. It is these reasons that keeps her grounded in her “why” and prevents her from taking offers that would disrupt her trend.

As we began to reach the closing of our conversation, I asked Henderson to share some key steps Black women, interested in pursuing real estate, could model off of her. What I appreciated the most about this entire interview is that she never sat on the surface. She emphasized that you have to “know your why” and let it be rooted in something more than just making a fast bag. Whitney also advised that if you want to make money, you have to have some secured funds ready for an investment. Sis. humbly said that a decade ago she earned a $25,000 national teacher’s award, which she used as investment funds. Of course many of us aren’t in the running for awards that are worth thousands of dollars, but she does encourage us to find a way to develop enough passive income or strategically save money. She cautions you to be very intentional about aligning yourself with the right team of people. Whitney describes her real estate agent as a “shark” like her, who is also a Black woman leading one of the top firms in Louisiana. And lastly, Henderson says that there is going to be a moment where you may be doing almost everything yourself, like laying floors and painting. But, she advises that it helps you develop a standard of integrity, in which you could eventually hold others.

It wouldn’t be a “I Became My Own” interview if I didn’t ask “why you wanna fly, Black bird?” It’s the way she gave a whole word in her response for me. I mean she gave a jewelry  box full of gems throughout the entire conversation, but the way she ended it was scripture.

“Because I am left with no choice but for us to fly. Everybody capitalizes off of Black American culture. Everybody is trying to look like us, sound like us and it’s amazing. I want us to see the benefits and reap the benefits of something that was born out of oppression but it essentially & uniquely to us.”


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