Reparations for Slavery? It's an Old Idea

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tags: slavery, reparations

Mr. Finkenbine is Professor of History and Director of the Black Abolitionist Archives at the University of Detroit Mercy. He is currently working on a book entitled, AMERICAN ATONEMENT: REPARATIONS FOR SLAVERY BEFORE "FORTY ACRES AND A MULE."

Most white Americans view recent calls for reparations for slavery as new and strange. Edward Ball, author of the best-selling book Slaves in the Family (1998), observes that he rarely meets a white person "who does not roll their eyes hearing the word reparations. It's thought to be some kind of alien concept, frightening if not even laughable." According to polls, nine out of ten whites reject the idea, many arguing that it is of recent vintage and distinctly un-American.

The loudest and most persistent expression of this perception has come from conservative critic David Horowitz of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in Los Angeles and the author of Uncivil Wars: The Controversy over Reparations for Slavery (2002). He claims that such calls are the product of recent "historical revisionism" by radical activists and academic fellow-travelers on the Left. According to Horowitz, the idea of reparations is "a fringe proposition favored by the political extreme," which bases its demands for restitution on "racist ideas that are inconsistent with America's democratic principles and institutions." His arguments have been widely circulated and, except on college campuses and among reparations activists, relatively well received.

The popularity of this view is not lost on African American scholars and activists. Charles Ogletree of Harvard Law School, a leading figure in the contemporary reparations movement, while noting that "the idea of reparations makes Americans uneasy," argues that "it is probably partly because, for most whites, it is a new idea, based on a history they do not understand." Robin D. G. Kelley, an historian and public intellectual at New York University, suggests in his volume Freedom Dreams (2002) that "most of America is still dismissing demands for reparations, claiming that the very idea violates the basic principles of U.S. democracy and laissez-faire capitalism."

In fact, the idea of reparations for slavery is far from new. Calls for compensation in some form to slaves and their descendants preceded the founding of the United States, dating back to at least the 1760s and continued to be sounded in relatively unbroken form for some two-and-a-half centuries up to the present. This long history of reparations arguments and practices included a range of individuals and groups prior to the Civil War: hundreds of eighteenth-century Quakers, who freed their slaves and personally compensated them for their unpaid time in bondage; a few newly-freed slaves in the North after the American Revolution, who sued in court for a portion of their former masters' wealth; dozens of penitent masters in the upper South, who set their slaves at liberty (especially in their wills) as acts of "retribution" and gave them plots of land, often in the emerging free states north of the Ohio River; a small cadre of nineteenth-century black and white abolitionists, who argued that it was important not only to emancipate the slaves but to "compensate them for the crime"; and hundreds of thousands of slaves on Southern farms and plantations before the Civil War, who sounded subtle calls for both freedom and reparations in their folk songs and tales, claiming that they were due "Egypt's spoil" for their "unrequited toil." These several threads converged after the Civil War as African Americans and their white allies pressed unsuccessfully to redistribute "forty acres and a mule" to each family of recently-freed slaves from the farms and plantations that the U.S. government had confiscated from Confederate rebels during the fighting. They argued that these freedmen and freedwomen were owed a plot of land and an animal to work it as just compensation for their unpaid labor and suffering in slavery.

What is striking about this early reparations movement is its interracial nature. Although never embraced by more than a minority of Americans, the reparations movement contested for national attention and involved both blacks and whites in significant numbers until the late 1860s, when the latter seem to have abandoned the issue. Even many white abolitionists redirected their energies at that time to either a triumphal commemoration of their accomplishment in ending slavery or to other, seemingly more pressing, social and economic concerns. Reparations talk became an exclusively African American subject. In fact, after the U.S. Congress rejected bills in 1866 and 1867 to enact "forty acres and a mule," whites seem to have almost uniformly discarded even their memories of earlier reparations arguments and practices, engaging in a collective act of forgetting about restitution for bondage, just as they largely set aside reminiscences of slavery itself in one great post-emancipation attempt to restore white unity across the Mason-Dixon line. As one scholar recently observed, "'forty acres and a mule,' then, is not where the idea of slave reparations began, but where for whites it died."

Although their white allies abandoned the struggle for reparations, the former slaves kept it very much alive. Having failed to convince Congress to grant them "forty acres and a mule" after the Civil War, they pursued various routes to realize their "reparation dreams." Many continued to hold onto the "promise" of forty acres. A few penned letters to their former masters asking for personal reparations in the form of cash. Several black leaders, most notably former slave and women's rights advocate Sojourner Truth, called for giving African Americans free government land in the West. Fiery young preacher Henry McNeal Turner campaigned for $40 billion in federal cash payments to the ex-slaves. At the turn of the twentieth century, some 600,000 African Americans joined organizations lobbying for monthly federal pensions to be paid to those who had once been in bondage. These organizations succeeded in getting several bills authorizing such pensions to the floor of Congress and in 1915 filed a reparations lawsuit in federal court.

As the generations of African Americans who had known bondage passed from the scene, their descendants, then flocking in ever larger numbers to America's urban centers, continued to push for reparations for slavery. Many black nationalists, especially followers of Marcus Garvey, Communists, and adherents to the Nation of Islam, generated calls for an all-black state or states in the South as a form of restitution to slavery's grandchildren. In 1962, "Queen Mother" Audrey Moore of Harlem, a former Garveyite, even presented pro-reparations petitions bearing a million signatures to President John F. Kennedy. During the era of the Civil Rights Movement, a range of African American leaders and organizations called for reparations, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, the Republic of New Africa, and especially James Forman, whose "Black Manifesto" (1969) shocked white Americans by demanding $500 million from mainstream churches and synagogues to be directed into black economic development. In fact, by the late twentieth century, reparations sentiment (often captured in the language of "forty acres and a mule") seemed deeply embedded in African American culture, finding expression in kitchen table conversation, song lyrics, T-shirts and ball caps, even the name of Spike Lee's film production company. Contemporary calls for reparations for slavery continue a 250-year-old tradition.

Just as the idea of reparations for slavery is not new, neither is it alien to American culture. Throughout American history, advocates of reparations -- whether eighteenth-century Quakers, nineteenth-century slaves and abolitionists, twentieth-century black nationalists, or contemporary activists -- have usually based their claims to compensation for bondage on shared American ideals. Most frequent among these justifications have been economic and legal arguments. Capitalist thinking about the economic value of work and the need to compensate the laborer for his or her hire lay at the heart of early demands for reparations. Many requests also appealed to the bedrock principle in American jurisprudence that both individuals and groups have a right to restitution for suffering and other unequal treatment. Calls for reparations have also depended upon arguments drawn from both Western political thought and Judeo-Christian social ethics and concepts of justice. Revolutionary-era Quakers, pre-Civil War abolitionists, and Black Panthers all pointed to the philosophy of natural rights expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Others looked to the Bible. Quakers and black abolitionists repeatedly employed the Golden Rule that one should "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12) in defending the idea of reparations. The values underlying reparations for slavery can be seen as wholly American.

Reparations for slavery is one of a handful of issues at the heart of America's contemporary racial divide. Breaching this chasm will require an honest and spirited interracial discussion of these issues. In the case of reparations, however, only African Americans seem willing to engage in the conversation. A meaningful consideration of the subject will require white Americans to overcome their historical amnesia about reparations and their own dark racial past. Germany continues to confront its ugly racial legacy; can America do less? Whites must stop viewing reparations as a notion from the lunatic fringe and set aside their deep-seated individualism and perceived economic self-interest, which prevents them from discussing slavery's continuing effect and the possible link between reparations and shared American ideals. This conversation will not be an easy one. But the vast majority of our citizens -- those nine out of ten white Americans who reject reparations for slavery -- should no longer take shelter in the misconception that the idea is new and strange. It is high time for the conversation to begin.

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Firouzeh Dav - 3/22/2010

I don't understand why we can't forgive and forget and enjoy a peaceful life together. We know that these days white people are the one getting discriminated against so often but nobody cares and no one can even talk about it . We all know discrimination and racism is not right and very inhumane thing to do, that's why we have all kinds of laws against it and people have changed and are ashamed of such ugly history, and fortunately it isn't even acceptable by the society. I don't think it is fair if I have to pay for my parents mistakes. Please stop making people feel horrible for something that happened many years ago and it was acceptable by the society at the time. On the other hand, why nobody is talking about how slavery is treated in Africa right now. I bet you, that many African people they wish they were slaves at some point in U.S.A and instead they had the kind of life and freedom that African American people have right now here in America and they did not have to live the kind of life they have right now in some parts of Africa. Also from the beginning wasn't it their own government who sold their people to slavery? In addition, U.S.A helps Africa more than any other country in the world. Well I think if anyone has problem with slavery should talk to African governments and find out why they didn't do anything back then to protect their people and even still don't care for their own people.

Look at Germany and Jews, children and grandchildren of those who did wrong towards Jewish people are still paying for their fathers and grandfathers mistakes which I believe it is absolutely unfair. Two wrongs never make anything right and we can never correct a wrong doing by commiting another one. I don't want my children and grandchildren to suffer in life if, God forbid, I make a mistake and cause any harm to others and I am sure you don't want that for yours either. We all deserve second chance in life and others blessing and forgiveness sometimes in life.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

I thought we wanted to be multi-cultural, unspeciest, and alll-inclusive.

Send the Europeans back to Europe, the "native Americans" back across the Bering Strait to Siberia, and the Africans back to back to Africa, and pay reparations to the deer and antelope playing at home on the North American range. Come to think of it, all humans came originally from Africa, let's not be New-World-centric: we all collectively owe reparations to the wolves of China, the bobcats of the Carpathians, the reindeer of Lapland and the fig trees of Babylonia. Full employment for all Horrorwitzs now !

Paul Noonan - 8/11/2004

Oops. When I said "the African-American child born in 2115" I meant 2015. Hopefully rascism WILL have totally disappeared by 2115.

Paul Noonan - 8/11/2004

...its too late. It would have been just to compensate those who suffered under slavery during their lifetimes, though I believe that "40 acres and a mule" had as much or more to do with punishing ex-Confederates as it did with compensating ex-slaves. It does not necessarily follow that it would be just to tax the present day population of America to pay African-Americans several generations removed from slavery for past injustices.

And, if we do compensate the present generation of African-Americans for slavery, what of future generations? Racism and discrimination in this society have greatly decreased over the past 40 years or so but they have not disappeared and it requires an incredibly optimistic view to think they will utterly disappear in the immediate future. So if we have "reparation payments" in 2005 how will that benefit the African-American child born in 2115, who will likely experience a milder version of the discrimination that African-Americans experience today? Or are the payments to be made in perpetuity? For that matter would payments go to any citizen of this country of African descent, including those who, like Barach Obama, are not descended from slaves?

Kenneth T. Tellis - 8/11/2004

I do believe that Americans are starting out on the wrong foot. If America came into the slave market, it was by the accident of statring out as a British colonial territory. There were countries that were in the slave business long before America was ever dreamed off. So why start by blaming the USA and expecting reparations?

Now to get to the heart of the matter of slavery. The present crisis in the Sudan did not begin in this century, but in the advent of Islam, which whether they like it or not Arabs are responsible for. If as we are now expecting that America or Europe pay indemnities for their era of slavery, how much more should Arabia, and the whole Arab world be made to pay Africa for their inroads and slavetraders in centuries past? I am rather puzzled by members of the Nation of Islam expectingthat the US and European countries to pay for their enslavement of blacks from Africa before and during colonial times. Yet they have not demanded reparations from the Arab world which began African slavery, and continue in some form or other today to demean blacks as in the Sudan. Could it be that the Nation of Islam goes easy when it comes to making demands on Islamic states? I see too much religion and too little honesty