The long history of American slavery reparations.


Dur­ing the colo­nial era, it was cus­tom­ary for mas­ters to grant "free­dom dues" to in­den­tured ser­vants who had com­pleted their fixed term of ser­vice. They were given land at times but at the very least tools and live­stock to help be­gin their new lives in free­dom. When for­mer slaves de­manded land af­ter the Civil War, they were hark­ing back to this long­time cus­tom, which the rest of the coun­try (with the ex­cep­tion of the abo­li­tion­ists) had long for­got­ten. Since the Re­con­struc­tion era, the re­neged-upon prom­ise of repa­ra-tions—rec­om­pense to African-Amer­i­cans for cen­turies of en­slave-ment and racial op­pres­sion—has con­tin­ued to fes­ter like an open sore on the na­tion's body politic.

Many Amer­i­cans dis­miss the idea of repa­ra­tions as eco­nom­i­cally im­prac­ti­cal, legally im­pos­si­ble and po­lit­i­cally in­flam­ma­tory. In the 20th cen­tury, how­ever, sev­eral coun­tries—most promi­nently post­war Ger­many but also the U.S.—have of­fered sig­nif­i­cant repa­ra­tions for past atroc­i­ties. Though the is­sue of repa­ra­tions for slav­ery never re­ally died down, es­pe­cially among African-Amer­i­cans, the cause was given new life in 2014 by the au­thor Ta-Ne­hisi Coates, whose land­mark es­say "The Case for Repa­ra­tions" in the At­lantic has shaped the cur­rent de­bate on re­dress not just for en­slave­ment but for a cen­tury of sys­tem­atic racial dis­crim­i­na­tion sanc­tioned by the state.

The ear­li­est calls for repa­ra­tions came from the en­slaved and those who ob­jected to the per­ma­nent and hered­i­tary na­ture of racial slav­ery in the Eng­lish colonies. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, called for free­ing slaves af­ter a term of ser­vice and, as early as 1672, ar­gued that they should be com­pen­sated for their la­bor and not sent off "empty handed." In the 18th cen­tury, the Quak­ers be­came the first Chris­t­ian de­nom­i­na­tion to ban slave-trad­ing and slave­hold­ing among its mem-bers, and they were over­rep­re­sented in the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary-era abo­li­tion move­ment. Many heeded Fox's in­junc­tion and gave their freed slaves ma­te­r­ial sup­port for their new lives.

In the New Eng­land colonies, which be­came the hot­bed of abo­li­tion­ism in the 19th cen­tury, slaves led the way in de­mand­ing re­dress from the gov­ern­ment. An ex­traordinary 1774 pe­ti­tion by a group of black slaves ad­dressed to the Mass­achusetts Gen­eral Court (the state as­sem­bly) de­clared, "Give and grant to us some part of unim­proved land, be­long­ing to the prov­ince, for a set­tle­ment."

In 1783, a for­merly en­slaved woman from Mass­achusetts, Be­linda Sut­ton, be­came the first to win repa­ra­tions for her years in bondage. A strik­ing pe­ti­tion on her be­half to the Mass­achusetts Gen­eral Court re­counted her ab­duc­tion from Africa and ar­gued that "by the laws of the land" she had been "de­nied the en­joy­ment of that im­mense wealth, a part whereof has been ac­cu­mu­lated by her own in­dus­try, and the whole aug­mented by her servi­tude." The court granted her pe­ti­tion, in part be­cause her en­slaver, Isaac Roy­all Jr., was a Tory who had re­sisted Amer­i­can in­de­pen­dence. In 1787, Sut­ton pe­ti­tioned again and won a pen­sion from his es­tate. (Roy­all, her en­slaver, made a sub­stan­tial be­quest to Har­vard Law School. Af­ter stu­dent protests over this slave­hold-ing con­nec­tion, the school re­moved his crest from its seal in 2016.)

In March 1788, Belinda Sutton, an African-born woman forced into slavery, petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for three years...


Though many uni­ver­si­ties in the An­glo-Amer­i­can world have re­cently ex­plored their his­tory of ill-got­ten wealth from slave trad­ing and slav­ery, only a hand­ful of pre­dom­inantly re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions have moved to­ward repa­ra­tions. The best-known ex­am­ple is George­town Uni­ver­sity, where Je­suits sold 272 slaves in 1838 to save their col­lege. Not only did George­town of­fer a for­mal apol­ogy, it also tracked down the slaves' de­scen­dants to of­fer them ad­mis­sion. Re­cently, the uni­ver­si­ty's stu­dents voted over­whelm­ingly for an in­crease in fees to pay repa­ra-tions, and a large en­dow­ment has been set up for de­scen­dants.

Re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions have of­ten taken the lead in repa­ra­tions for slav­ery, see­ing it as fun­da­men­tally a moral ques­tion as well as an eco­nomic one. Last year, the sis­ters of the So­ci­ety of the Sa­cred Heart, an in­ternational Catholic group that owned slaves in Mis­souri and Lou­isiana, cre­ated a repa­ra­tions fund. Just this month, the Vir­ginia The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary, an Epis­co-palian in­sti­tu­tion that still has build­ings to­day built by slaves, cre­ated a $1.7 mil­lion repa­ra­tions fund for de­scen­dants of the en­slaved.

In her im­por­tant 2017 book "Repa­ra­tions for Slav­ery and the Slave Trade," the Howard Uni­ver­sity his­to­rian Ana Lu­cia Araujo shows that at­tempts to re­pair past harms have ranged from for­mal apolo­gies to eco­nomic in­dem­ni­fi­ca­tion to com­pen­satory pro­grams. In the U.K., for in­stance, Glas­gow Uni­ver­sity, a cen­ter of 19th-cen­tury abo­li­tion­ist ac­tivism, re­cently cre­ated a repa­ra­tions fund of 20 mil­lion pounds af­ter ac­knowl­edg­ing that the uni­ver­sity had ben­e­fited from Scot­tish slave traders to the tune of more than $100 mil­lion (in the dol­lars of the day). In 2017, All Souls Col­lege, Ox­ford, in­sti­tuted a fel­low­ship for a stu­dent from the West In­dies and paid 100,000 pounds to Co­dring­ton Col­lege in Bar­ba­dos in par­tial re­dress for the 10,000 pounds (worth mil­lions to­day) that All Souls re­ceived to build its li­brary from Christo­pher Co­dring­ton, who had made his for­tune in slav­ery.

In the U.S., sev­eral in­sti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing pre­ceded George­town in con­sid­er­ing their past con­nec­tions with en­slave­ment. In 2003, Pres­i­dent Ruth Sim­mons of Brown Uni­ver­sity first com­missioned a re­port on the school's in­volve­ment in slav­ery and the slave trade, which led Brown to take sev­eral mea­sures, in­clud­ing a $10 mil­lion en­dow­ment to ed­u­cate dis­ad­van­taged chil­dren in Prov­i-dence, R.I., ren­der­ing tech­ni­cal as­sistance to his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties, and fund­ing re­search on slav­ery and racial jus­tice. Since then, other uni­ver­si­ties—in­clud­ing Co­lumbia, Emory, Har­vard, Prince­ton and the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia—have ex­plored their own in­sti­tu­tional his­to­ries of ben­e­fit­ing from cen-turies of hu­man mis­ery, al­though none of them has of­fered repa­rations.

Iron­i­cally, in con­sid­er­ing eman­ci­pa­tion, gov­ern­ments were of­ten pre­oc­cu­pied with com­pen­sat-ing slave­hold­ers for their loss of hu­man prop­erty rather than the en­slaved for their stolen la­bor, bod­ies and lives. British eman­ci­pa-tion com­pen­sated slave­hold­ers and re­duced freed peo­ple to ap­pren­tice-ship, a lim­i­nal state be­tween slav­ery and free­dom. In 1862, when slav­ery was abol­ished in the Dis­trict of Co­lumbia, slave­hold­ers rather than slaves re­ceived com­pen­sa­tion.

But the Union vic­tory in 1865 brought an end to this prac­tice, which abo­li­tion­ists such as William Lloyd Gar­ri­son, who wanted re­dress for the slaves them­selves, had long protested. The de­struc­tion of slav­ery dur­ing and af­ter the Civil War re­sulted in the largest con­fis­ca­tion of pri­vate prop­erty by the state in Amer­i­can his­tory, with the free­ing of nearly four mil­lion slaves val­ued at around $3 bil­lion at the time.

Per­haps the most fa­mous episode in the his­tory of repa­ra­tions came in 1865, when Union Gen. William Tecum­seh Sher­man's fa­mous Field Or­ders No. 15 di­vided aban­doned and con­fis­cated plan­ta-tions in low-coun­try South Car­olina and Geor­gia into 40-acre lots for newly freed peo­ple and gave each of them a mule. The news of "Forty Acres and a Mule" spread like wild­fire among the for­merly en­slaved—only to be dashed within a few months when An­drew John­son, who be­came pres­i­dent af­ter Abra­ham Lin­coln's as­sas­si­na­tion, re­turned the Sher­man land grants and other lands dis­tributed by the fed­eral Freed­men's Bu­reau to for­mer slave-own­ing planters.

The sense of be­trayal lin­gered among African-Amer­i­cans, es­pecially af­ter the over­throw of Re­con­struc­tion and the fail­ure to rec­tify the cru­el­ties of racism. Freed peo­ple in the post-bel­lum South were soon dis­en­fran­chised, seg­re­gated and sub­jected to racial ter­ror, debt pe­on­age and semi-servi­tude in the no­to­ri­ous sys­tem of "con­vict leas­ing," all of which made a mock­ery of black free­dom. When Spike Lee started mak­ing movies on racial themes in the 1980s, he point­edly named his pro­duc­tion com­pany 40 Acres and a Mule.

Af­ter Re­con­struc­tion, for­mer slaves took the lead in de­mand­ing com­pen­sa­tion. A sig­nif­i­cant step came in 1896, when Cal­lie House and Isa­iah Dick­er­son founded the first na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion for repa­ra-tions, known as the Na­tional Ex-Slave Mu­tual Re­lief, Bounty and Pen­sion As­so­ci­a­tion. De­spite gov­ern­ment per­se­cu­tion, the as­so­ci­a­tion marked the start of a repa­ra­tions move­ment among African-Amer­i­cans that has con­tin­ued un­til to­day.

In 1987, in the wake of the civil-rights move­ment, black groups and lead­ers in­clud­ing James For­man founded the Na­tional Coali­tion of Blacks for Repa­ra­tions in Amer­ica, or N'­CO­BRA. Its cur­rent in­car­na­tions in­clude grass roots or­ga­ni­za­tions such as the Un­paid La­bor Project and the Move­ment for Black Lives, which call for repa­ra­tions not just for en­slave­ment but also for its lin­ger­ing lega­cies: racial "redlin­ing" for in­sur­ance and fi­nanc­ing, mass in­car­cer­a­tion, racism in law en­force­ment, and the yawn­ing gaps between blacks and whites in wealth, health, ed­u­ca­tion and op­por­tu­nity.

It has proven eas­ier for gov­ernments to pay repa­ra­tions for par­tic­u­lar his­toric wrongs than for cen­turies of what Mr. Coates has called the "quiet plun­der" of black la­bor and wealth. Per­haps the most suc­cess­ful case is West Ger­many's 1953 agree­ment to pay some $845 mil­lion (in the dol­lars of the day) to the Con­fer­ence on Jew­ish Ma­te­r­ial Claims Against Ger­many and the newly founded state of Is­rael as repa­ra­tions for the Holo­caust. (Ger­man his­tory also of­fers a case when repa­ra­tions failed: Mak­ing Ger­many pay enor­mous repa­ra­tions af­ter World War I helped pave the way to World War II.)

The U.S. gov­ern­ment also for­mally apol­o­gized and paid repa­ra­tions to Ja­panese Amer­i­can cit­i­zens wrong­fully in­terned in camps dur­ing World War II—to the tune of $20,000 each—with the pas­sage of the Civil Lib­er­ties Act of 1988. More re­cently, the city of Chicago agreed to pay sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars in repa­ra­tions to vic­tims of sys­tem­atic po­lice bru­tal­ity and tor­ture.

In 2009, the U.S. Con­gress for­mally apol­o­gized for slav­ery, but pub­lic of­fi­cials of­ten dis­miss the de­mand for repa­ra­tions as utopian or a pre­scrip­tion for a le­gal quag-mire. Nor has the U.S. se­ri­ously con­sid­ered con­ven­ing a Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Com­mis­sion, as South Africa did af­ter the fall of apartheid, to grap­ple with the lega­cies of en­slave­ment. As the moral philosopher Su­san Neiman notes in her re­cent book "Learn­ing From the Ger­mans," while post-Nazi-era Ger­mans have frankly ac­knowl­edged the evil that their coun­try had done, un­re­con­structed Neo-Con­fed­er­ates in Amer­ica still ped­dle the mythol-ogy of the "Lost Cause" and of­fer what Fred­er­ick Dou­glass called "eu­lo­gies of the South and of the trai­tors." To make amends for his­tor­i­cal wrongs, one must first gen­uinely ac­knowl­edge the harms done.

As his­to­ri­ans of slav­ery con­tinue to demon­strate the ex­tent to which the economies of the Amer­i­cas and Eu­rope grew on the backs of black peo­ple, a "fully loaded cost ac­count­ing" of slav­ery, in the his­to­rian Nell Irvin Painter's words, might seem too im­mense. The scale of the chal­lenge has cer­tainly par­a­lyzed any sub­stan­tial re­dress for en­slave­ment and its bru­tal af­ter­math. Pro­pos­als for a Mar­shall Plan for Amer­i­ca's in­ner cities have been still­born. In 1989, Rep. John Cony­ers in­tro­duced a bill to es­tab­lish a com­mis-sion to study repa­ra­tions, which lan­guished de­spite his rein­tro­duc­ing it year af­ter year.

In 2016, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama showed him­self highly at­tuned to the prag­matic dif­fi­cul­ties of pur­su­ing repa­ra­tions in the face of strong op­po­si­tion. As he told Mr. Coates, "The bot­tom line is that it's hard to find a model in which you can prac­ti­cally ad­min­is­ter and sus­tain po­lit­i­cal sup­port for those kinds of ef­forts." Crit­ics of repa­ra­tions usu­ally look past the en­dur­ing dele­te­ri­ous ef­fects of slav­ery and its bru­tal af­ter­math, fo­cus­ing in­stead on slav­ery's end in the 19th cen­tury. Last June, right be­fore a House hear­ing on the is­sue, Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Leader Mitch Mc­Connell re­jected the idea of present-day com­pen­sa­tion: "I don't think repa­ra­tions for some­thing that hap­pened 150 years ago, for whom none of us cur­rently liv­ing are re­spon­sible, is a good idea."

Still, ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and his­to­ri­ans have kept the de­bate alive, and the push for repa­ra­tions has re­cently achieved a new vis­i­bil­ity in na­tional pol­i­tics. In Mr. Coates's con­gres­sional tes­ti­mony this June, he said that African-Amer­i­cans were still suf­fer­ing from the af­ter­math of slav­ery and urged law­mak­ers to "re­ject fair-weather pa­tri­o­tism, to say that this na­tion is both its cred­its and deb­its." As the 2020 cam­paign heats up, the will­ing­ness of sev­eral De­mo­c­ra­tic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, in­clud­ing Sens. Eliz­a­beth War­ren and Ka­mala Har­ris, to con­sider at least some sort of rem­edy for slav­ery and on­go­ing racism have put repa­ra­tions back on the na­tional agenda.

What­ever spe­cific shape repa­ra­tions may even­tu­ally take, it is a na­tional moral debt that is long over­due. The Con­sti­tu­tion's 13th Amend­ment abol­ished slav­ery in 1865, but Con­gress is also em­pow­ered, as the Supreme Court has ruled, to elim­i­nate the "badges and in­ci­dents of slav­ery" un­der whose his­tor­i­cal weight so many of the na­tion's African-Amer­i­can cit­i­zens have groaned for too long.

—Prof. Sinha is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in Amer­i­can His­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Con­necti-cut. Her books in­clude "The Slave's Cause: A His­tory of Abo­li­tion" (Yale Uni­ver­sity Press) and "The Coun­ter-rev­o­lu­tion of Slav­ery" (Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina Press).

Wall Street Journal. September 20, 2019

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September 22, 2019

Voices4America Post Script. Reparations for slavery - a topic which is top of mind and clear for some, obscure, confusing or rejected by others. We need facts if we are to find a way to make America morally whole. This article provides a strong overview. Share it! #Reparations


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