Reparations for Slavery: An Old and Not-So-Strange Idea

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.

    By Roy E. Finkenbine

    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."
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