This year’s 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans landing on US soil was the impetus for an unusual meeting between strangers. Pam Tucker, who is white, and Wanda Tucker, who is black, crossed the country to meet in Hampton, VA where they believe both of their families’ foray into the American experiment began. Pam, 60, and Wanda, 62, share a common heritage that traces back to colonial Virginia although Pam’s family was from England, and Wanda’s family from Africa. The two families may have even lived under the same roof. Pam’s family owned Wanda’s family. Pam came to help heal the wounds of the past, Wanda came to learn more about that past. Both women came with some trepidation for a historic meeting to find out how they came to share the last name.
When the first Africans arrived at Point Comfort, VA, they did not suffer the unmitigated brutality of chattel slavery that their progeny would endure; that hadn’t been invented. Some of these first Africans who arrived in 1619 were freed, some intermarried with white indentured servants, and some escaped. For the next 250 years, American law eroded the humanity of enslaved Africans until they were a permanent untouchable class, and raised the status of all white men to the level of citizens. A hundred years after both Tucker families arrived, the notion of poor whites associating socially with poor blacks would have been shocking to main stream sensibilities of the early 18th century.
Such milestone anniversaries give us cause to revisit the injustice of America’s original sin. But no re-visitation would be complete without addressing some form of reparations and atonement. Generally, making reparations means making amends for a wrong by paying money or otherwise helping those who have been wronged. The term has become synonymous with rectifying American’s original sin by making the descendants of enslaved Africans whole. In June 2019, the House Judiciary Committee conducted a hearing on the feasibility of reparations. Republican leaders, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, met these hearings with derision. McConnell stated that he did not favor reparations “for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living were responsible.” McConnell was born in Alabama and failed to mention that some of his family’s wealth was generated from owning slaves. In all likelihood, the descendants of those enslaved did not receive an equal education, the right to vote, or equal protection under the law until 1966 — the year before McConnell graduated from law school. While McConnell was not responsible for slavery, he benefitted from it, as did many other Americans. In addition to providing free labor, chattel slavery laid the economic foundation that allowed the United States to become a global power faster than any other nation in history.
As historian Ed Baptist wrote in his book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism: “Every critical aspect of American politics and economics was influenced by slavery. In 1836, $600 million in revenue was either directly or indirectly tied to the institution of slavery.” The total of all the enslaved exceeded all other national assets combined at an estimated $3 billion in 1860 dollars. Plantation wealth helped create the endowments for some of America’s oldest colleges and universities, such as the University of Georgia, which was established in 1785 but did not accept black students until 1962. Georgetown University sold 272 men, women, and children in 1838 to remain solvent. Even the White House was built in part with slave labor.
When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he added another patch to the fabric of the world’s first multi-ethnic republic. For the first time in the history of the world, one’s future was not solely determined by the family they were born into; this is part of the promise that makes the United States the envy of the world. But in 2019, those goals are still aspirational for many. The founders quibbled about their vision for representative democracy, but they were united in their belief in basic liberty. The framers could have specified who the benefactors of these new-found liberties would be, but they did not. Determining who is entitled to such liberties was left for future generations. This debate is ground zero for our current political polarization, and the catalyst for Donald Trump’s assent into the White House.
The debate over who is entitled to America’s promise is at the epicenter of the conversation on reparations. Are we a society that believes in equality of opportunity? Do we want to mitigate the effects of 250 years of slavery and 100 years of Jim Crow?
Support for the idea for reparations for former slaves can be found in the Judeo Christian traditions of the old testament. As Deuteronomy 15: 12–15 states:
if thy brother be sold unto thee, and serve thee six years; then in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free from thee. And thou shalt not let him go away empty: thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock… of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him.
Reparations were paid to Washington D.C. slave holders when the enslaved people of DC were emancipated in 1862. The first notion of reparations for the former enslaved came from General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Field Orders No. 15, which divided abandoned and confiscated plantations in South Carolina and Georgia into 40-acre lots for the newly freed people and gave each of them a mule. This news spread like wild fire, and is the basis for the 40 acres and a mule oral history. Black Americans only gained full citizenship with the Civil War Amendments of 1866. The newly emancipated were also allowed to participate in local and federal government. During the period of reconstruction, 1865–1876, nine black men were elected to Congress, some of them former slaves. These post-Civil War concessions were rescinded with the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln and the swearing in of Andrew Johnson. Freed people in the post antebellum South were soon disenfranchised, segregated, and subjected to racial terror and debt peonage which made a mockery of black freedom. These atrocities were the impetus for the Great Migrations of the early twentieth century. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendment rights of the former enslaved went unprotected until the passage of Civil Rights legislation in 1966. Shortly before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he addressed the struggle of black American’s to integrate into mainstream society:
No other citizen in the American collective has been made a slave on American soil, and because of this, the color of black Americans skin has been stigmatized and made something to be ashamed of. When enslaved Africans were freed there was an unwillingness to give the former slaves any economic base to get started, so their freedom was freedom to the elements and freedom to starvation… At the same time, America was giving land away to the peasants of Europe by the millions of acres. I believe that everyone should lift themselves up by their bootstraps but it is a cruel jest to tell a bootless man that he ought to lift himself up by his own bootstraps. Black Americans have been left bootless by the millions.
Reparations are about giving boots to the descendants of those who were left bootless for hundreds of years and still haven’t acquired them.
Today, the median wealth for black families is only 10% of that of white families, black women are three times more likely to die in child birth, and on average black men received federal prison sentences 19% longer than white criminals for the same crimes and with similar criminal backgrounds. These are the lingering effects of 400 years of subjugation. It is only through the lens of time that most Americans are able to recognize past atrocities as the results of unmitigated racism. If we are to live up to the great promise of this nation, America must atone for the harm it caused to enslaved Africans and their descendants.
But because many do not recognize the links between today’s racial inequality and our national history of racism, reparations based solely upon race could jeopardize future efforts to achieve racial equality. Many believe this was the case when overly sever sanctions against Germany were levied by the British and French, contributing to the start of the Second World War. A system of atonement similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), combined with monetary reparations based upon need would be more effective. Need could be easily determined based on reported income tax returns, and geographic cost of living indices. Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang’s Universal Income proposal is an example of a need-based dividend that would raise the tides for all boats in the same harbor.
Howard University historian Ana Lucia Araujo provides a detailed look at global attempts to repair past harms in her book, Reparations for Slavery and the Slave Trade. These past attempts ranged from formal apologies, to economic indemnification, to compensatory programs. In the mid 19th century the University of Glasgow created a reparations fund of $20 million pounds after acknowledging the university had benefited from Scottish slave traders to the tune of more than $100 million dollars (of that time). Perhaps most famously, in 1953, West Germany paid $845 million (of that time) to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the newly founded state of Israel. The United States formerly apologized and paid the victims of Japanese internment $20,000 each in 1988. Congress declared the interment had been “carried out without adequate security reasons”, and was, “motivated largely by racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”. U.S. Representative Robert T. Matsui, (D) California, who was interned with his parents as a child declared, “it lifted the specter of disloyalty that hung over us for 42 years… We were made whole again as American Citizens.”
A public federal apology for slavery and Jim Crow by Congress and the President should be a cornerstone of any reparations. We must acknowledge the problem before we can address it. The Department of Justice could establish a framework for a TRC to provide a restorative justice system to adjudicate incidents such as the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in St. Louis, Missouri, or the black community in Rosewood, Florida , and the numerous lynchings in our history are prime examples. This commission should be organized regionally so that individuals could come forward to express regret for past failures, and be granted amnesty or absolution. Contrition could be captured in a register of reconciliation, and rehabilitation for victims and perpetrators could be offered. Moral philosopher, Susan Neiman notes in her book, “Learning from the Germans,” that post-Nazi-era Germans have frankly acknowledged the evil and wickedness that their country engaged against humanity. In America, Neo-Confederates still peddle the mythology of the “lost cause”. To make amends for historical wrongs, one must first genuinely acknowledge the harms done. Only once America acknowledges the harm that was done, can we begin to rebuild in earnest behind the lofty goals of liberty and justice for all.
Troy is a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel and 20-year veteran with combat experience. He is a Healthcare Administrator by training, author and public speaker whose area of emphasis is diversity and inclusion.