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Slavery reparation debate rages

Leaders wonder how best to compensate blacks

By Bronislaus B. Kush TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
bkush@telegram. com

The national Episcopal Church's apology this summer
for its role in slavery has reignited debate about
whether black Americans should be compensated for the
injustices inflicted upon their ancestors.

"I think it's a good idea, if the money can be used
for things like getting kids some jobs or training,"
said Diane Thomas, a 27-year-old black woman who lives
in Worcester.

The decision by the church has prompted an earnest
discussion about how practical the idea is and whether
there's finally enough political will to move the
proposal forward.

The discourse hasn't been limited to religious people,
academics or to residents of the South where the trade
flourished.

In the Bay State, for example, the reparations issue
has been brought up in local churches of various
denominations and school officials said it's expected
to be revisited as students return to college
classrooms this fall. The Episcopal Diocese of Western
Massachusetts, which encompasses the Worcester area,
may even discuss the matter further at its annual
convention in Springfield in October.

Slavery became part of American history when Dutch
traders brought 20 captive Africans to the Jamestown
colony in 1619.

Though it wasn't prevalent, slavery did gain a
significant foothold in New England during the
Colonial and Revolutionary War eras.

The reparations issue first surfaced nationally almost
immediately after the Civil War, with advocates
believing that compensation would help obliterate the
stain that the slave trade had placed on American
history.

For example, Union Gen. William Sherman proposed in
1865 that former slaves be given a mule apiece along
with 40 acres of land on the coasts of Georgia and
South Carolina.

That plan never got anywhere but the matter was
periodically revisited and was a cause of civil rights
activists in the 1960s.

The subject garnered recent interest when the 75th
General Convention of the Episcopal Church, in June,
passed a number of resolutions dealing with the issue,
including an acknowledgement that the church
participated in "this sin."

"It is an issue that has drawn attention" said William
H. Coyne, the archdeacon of the Diocese of Western
Massachusetts, who attended the General Convention.

Delegates in June voted to apologize for the church's
complicity but stopped short of calling for
compensation from the church.

Rather, the convention directed local dioceses to
document cases of the church's participation and
directed the Committee on Anti-Racism to study and
report to the executive committee by March 31, 2008,
on how the church can be "the repairer of the breach,
both materially and relationally, and achieve the
healing and reconciliation that will lead us to a new
life in Christ."

Many members of the Episcopal Church have been eager
to compensate blacks because some bishops owned
slaves.

The issue of compensation has also been posed in
Congress.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr., a Democrat from Michigan,
introduced a bill in 1989 that would establish a
commission to study the economic and social impact of
slavery and to make appropriate remedies "to redress
the harm inflicted on living African Americans."

A spokeswoman said Mr. Conyers, the dean of the
Congressional Black Caucus, has pledged to keep
refiling the bill until it is passed.

According to his office, at least four million
Africans and their descendants were enslaved from 1619
to 1865.

Proposal opponents, some of them black, argue it
doesn't make sense to compensate people generations
after a historical wrong.

There are also questions as to how the compensation
may be made.

For example, should blacks be individually given a
one-time payment or should the compensation be made in
the form of funding for more educational and social
service programming?

James Bonds Jr., president of the Business Inclusion
Council and chairman of the board of directors of the
Greater YMCA of Worcester, said he believes
reparations could translate into job training and
education for young blacks.

"I think blacks deserve it (compensation) ," said Mr.
Bonds, who also serves on the executive committee of
Worcester Interfaith. "We have been in this country
from day one and have never received our just due.
Although we keep fighting for our fair share, we keep
coming in last."

Mable L. Millner, assistant dean of students and
director of the multicultural education program at the
College of the Holy Cross, said the issue of
compensation is a complex one that needs deep
consideration, if it is pursued.

"The issue, on the surface, may sound good but you
have to make sure that the reparations properly
trickle down through the bureaucracy and get to the
people who really need them," said Ms. Millner, who
also sits on Worcester's Human Rights Commission.

She warned that the reparations shouldn't be offered
in a one-shot deal.

For example, if the reparations come in the form of
scholarships, Ms. Millner said that eligible students
shouldn't just receive one year's worth of financial
aid.

"You don't want to see a repeat of what happened with
the Hurricane Katrina victims, who weren't provided
with follow-up support," she explained.

Most blacks, however, feel the reparations issue will
never be resolved, given the politics.

Tell everyone what you think

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