— By The African American Research Group,
First published 2003 and reprinted, reflecting upon the recent article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic
Not many are certain exactly when, where or how the initial demand for reparations for African American descendants of slaves first surfaced; but we are fairly certain, that when one of its famous early advocates, Congressmen, Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania, proposed giving abandoned rebel lands to the newly emancipated slaves in 1865, he never imagined that some 135 years later, a very similar cry for reparations for African Americans would be growing in America.
By way of background, it is understood that in January 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman, in gratitude to the newly freed slaves who assisted and marched across Georgia with his Army, held a meeting with some twenty odd ministers and leaders of Savannah’s black community to discuss the needs of the newly freed slaves. A few days after the meeting, General Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15. This Field Order granted each former slave family forty acres of seized rebel land outside Charleston. Sherman later directed the Army to assist the freedmen by loaning them mules. Some writers speculate that this may be the origin of the phrase “forty acres and a mule”. This is especially so since no written Army directive nor Congressional enactment mentioned the provision of “a mule”, along with land.
The land was subsequently divided by the military authorities into 40-acre plots and titles were issued to many freedmen. It has been written that by June 1965, some 40,000 freedmen had been allocated some 400,000 acres of land. General O.O. Howard (after whom Washington’s Howard University is named) and General Rufus Saxton later expanded this program to other conquered areas until Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, commanded Howard to rescind the order. Most of the land was eventually returned to its previous Confederate owners.
By the same token, near the very end of the Civil War in March 1865, Congress created the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands (Freedmen’s Bureau). The Freedmen’s Bureau was responsible for, among other things, “the supervision and management of all abandoned lands. . . the control of all subjects relating to refugees and Freedmen from rebel States.” Section 4 of the First Freedmen’s Bureau Act also provided that the Freedmen’s Bureau “shall have authority to set apart for use of loyal refugees and freedmen such tracts of land within the insurrectionary states as shall have been abandoned or to which the United States shall have acquired title by confiscation or sale, or otherwise; and to every male citizen, whether refugee or freedmen, as aforesaid there shall be assigned not more than 40 acres of such land.”
This later quoted language is the specific portion of the proposed Act, which was introduced by Congressmen Stevens; but never accepted by the Congress. By a vote of 126 to 36 this proposed language was rejected by an obviously substantial margin.
Since there has been so much confusion, as well as heated debate in the recent discussions concerning the subject of “reparations”, perhaps it would be helpful at the outset to begin this discussion to reflect on the definition of the word as defined in the following sources: Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Black’s Law Dictionary
Borrowing heavily on these definitions in the context of the current national debate, as well as in an effort to formulate our own thoughts and opinions regarding the issue of reparations for African Americans, we have taken the liberty of crafting our own working definition of the word. Accordingly, we believe, consistent with the above, that reparations can also be defined as follows:
Compensation to be paid to African Americans by Federal and State governments for Government sanctioned years of chattel slavery and mistreatment of African Americans.
There are a number of questions that appear to surface from this working definition. So, let us attempt to dissect its words and further explore their meaning.
I. Exactly what is meant by compensation? In many instances, this appears to be the initial thrust of inquiry. Just what is meant by “compensation” people ask? “Compensation” does not necessarily mean payment of cash or equivalents. Nor does it necessarily mean the giving of a Cadillac or “forty acres and a mule”. It could however mean any of those things; but in today’s environment and under today’s realities, it is our opinion that almost any compensation rendered would more appropriately be given to “standing” non-governmental institutions serving African Americans generally, rather than payments to individual African Americans. Moreover, the compensation could be in the form of grants, vouchers, land, preferences, “opportunities” or almost anything that would be considered of value to any nation in the Western World. The mechanics of how the compensation might be paid or rendered are beyond the scope of this report. However, this nation has already gained much experience with attempts to provide compensation to those wronged or “hurt” on a massive scale recall recent payments to Japanese-Americans who had been interned by the united States during World War II . In addition, a number of European nations have obtained even greater experience with reparations in recent years recall payments to Jews who had been interned by Germany during World War II. Thus, we can borrow from that experience as well.
II. Who is to receive the compensation? In this same regard, questions are often raised concerning how the African Americans (who are to receive compensation) will be fairly and accurately identified. Upon preliminary study, this question likewise does not appear to present insurmountable hurdles. With respect to the slavery time period, since, it is almost certain that there are no survivors who experienced “legal” slavery, we are advocating that compensation be paid to the descendants of slaves who implicitly suffered from the legacy of slavery’s deprivations. And, since we are not suggesting specific payments to specific individuals, we can in our view, legitimately approach this question from a group perspective.
Assuming we were even committed to analyzing how best to more fairly and accurately compensate specific African Americans for the wrongs committed upon their specific slave and other ancestors, we ask, how long would it take and what resources would have to be devoted to that effort? It would undoubtedly take more than a few lifetimes; and it is even more doubtful whether enough resources and expertise would be available in the foreseeable future. Accordingly, as noted, one reasonable approach would suggest that we tackle this problem by looking at available data on a massive or group scale. In other words, it would be too burdensome, if not impossible, to “track” specific African American slaves or their descendants on an individual basis, so let’s see if we can track African Americans in general. In addition, it would appear that one would use or apply the “best available” data rule in order to build some parameters for overcoming this hurdle.
In this regard, using a conservative approach, our national Government has conducted an official census of its free and slave inhabitants every ten years since 1790. Until 1870, most of the Censuses documented in detail the numbers of slaves, free persons of color, whites, etc. for each locality in the country throughout the entire period. Since, for example we are not suggesting compensation on an individual basis, it would not appear difficult to gather relevant information on the numbers of slaves held in bondage in each State, county and town throughout the census periods 1790 to 1860. Merely, a brief snapshot of the data would reveal the following for the three census years of 1790, 1820 and 1860.
It would obviously appear to be somewhat of a hurdle to determine how long each slave was held in bondage (assuming that were even necessary); however, fair assumptions, the existing records and other information could if necessary, fill many of the gaps even in that information. In any event, the task of determining how many and who might be entitled to compensation can be overcome. By virtue of 20th Century record keeping practices on both the State and Federal level, numerical population data pertaining to the post slavery mistreatment period should be even more accurate and readily available.
III. Who is to pay the compensation? The question of who will pay the compensation would appear to be a much easier one to resolve. Without much question, it was both the national government and the individual States who permitted, fostered, protected and in many respects, encouraged the institution of slavery and the parallel mistreatment of African Americans since the settling of the nation. Those who are not in denial are well acquainted with the official and well-documented record of the historical roles of the national and state governments in the perpetuation of the institution of slavery, as well as the parallel mistreatment of African Americans. Those who are not familiar should become familiar with some of the salient events in the historical record which are discussed below.
It is well documented that a number of State’s abolished slavery prior to 1865, as well as treated African Americans with varying degrees of humanity throughout our nation’s history; and there should be little difficulty in determining how to credit those States for their respective records.
IV. Why is the compensation to be paid? In summary and at the risk of repeating, the compensation is to be paid because African Americans have been damaged, hurt and/or wronged because: 1) our nation allowed the institution of slavery to exist for centuries; 2) our nation has permitted African Americans to be mistreated since the abolition of slavery to the present and 3) the nation has yet to fully atone or pay for the wrongs it committed.
As indicated above and indeed, throughout this article, compensation is not to be paid solely because someone is an African American or even because slavery and mistreatment were sanctioned by the various Governments; but rather, because of the damage and injury suffered by slaves and their descendants by the institution of slavery and its legacy.
Many people still have the audacity to question the fact of slavery, including its duration, as well as its effect upon those held in bondage. They particularly question slavery’s legacy and its continuing impact upon African Americans. There are many reasons for this but the most significant in our view, applicable to both Caucasians and African Americans, is ignorance. That is, ignorance of the history of this country and its various peoples. When this ignorance is coupled with denial and/or lack of “ownership”, one has a double hurdle to overcome.
For far too many, the television mini series “Roots” was no different than “Star Wars” or “The Godfather”. In short, it was still “make believe” to them. On the other hand, there currently exists an opportunity for the body politic to come to grips with the nation’s past and to fully atone for the wrongs it has indisputably inflicted upon African Americans.
V. For what time period is the compensation to be paid? In the first instance, the initial period would consist of that period of time between the introduction of the institution of African slavery into the various States and its subsequent abolition. The second period would consist of that period of slavery and the present. While there may remain some minor dispute concerning the beginnings of slavery in the United States, the overwhelming evidence indicates that it began around 1620.
Than is when approximately 20 Africans were carried to Jamestown, Virginia on a Dutch ship and sold to a Englishman who initially enslaved the Africans for a specific number of years. Subsequently, well into the nineteenth century, just about every nation on the European continent engaged in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, bringing Africans to the Caribbean and the Americas to work plantations under harsh conditions. Although various states abolished slavery earlier, this system of slavery existed in the United States until it was abolished after a civil war and the passage of the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution in1865. Nonetheless and at the risk of generating rigorous opposition from both proponents, as well as opponent of reparations, one might recommend utilizing the seemingly late date of July 4, 1776. For us, that date best symbolizes the hypocrisy of this nation – the date this nation globally pronounced that “All men are created equal. . .”; while at the same time, acknowledging and implicitly condoning the institution of slavery, as well as the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While there is still some low decibel debate regarding exactly when slavery ceased or was abolished, since as a practical matter, it was terminated for the vast majority of most African Americans at various times and in various localities after the outbreak of the Civil War, one may recommend the very conservative approach of using April 1865- the date Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, surrendered the South to Union General, Ulysses S. Grant.
Commensurate with the official date of slavery’s termination, the newly freed African Americans were by and large treated as “second class” inferior beings in all manner of public and private life, with minor exceptions. Except for the very short, so labeled Reconstruction period (c. 1863 to 1877), African Americans were at best, used as cheap labor and largely treated as subordinate. In most Southern jurisdictions, most African Americans could not vote or hold office, lived in communities “reserved” exclusively for African Americans, received a small modicum of education in segregated and inferior schools, worked for barely subsistence wages for white persons who had formerly enslaved them and generally existed according to the wishes and dictates of a racist white society. In the North, where African Americans were considered less of a threat to whites and where white society had been historically more educated and tolerant, life for African Americans was considered substantially better by most objective measurements.
With respect to the time period of mistreatment of African Americans, it is a very easy and tempting proposition to identify the beginning date with the date that “official” slavery ended. This is so despite the fact that many would argue that while slavery was officially terminated, as a practical matter, it never really terminated for many; and at best, it merely evolved into mistreatment for most. Nonetheless, taking the conservative approach, one may identify the beginning of the mistreatment period as April 1865-when the War ended. Identifying the termination date of this period of mistreatment is a much more difficult proposition, as many would argued that the mistreatment period continues. This is particularly so they argue in the areas of housing, education, employment, credit, criminal justice, racial profiling, municipal services, voting, etc. Indeed, the list of grievance areas is almost endless. Hence, It would appear very arguable that almost any termination date for alleged mistreatment that is chosen short of the present, would be considered arbitrary. Notwithstanding, a termination date probably should be chosen, if for no other reason, to move the discussion forward. One therefore, may recommend utilizing the beginning of the 21st Century or January 2000 as a convenient termination date
VI. What specifically is meant by Government sanctioned chattel slavery and the mistreatment of African Americans? If one has never experienced or witnessed chattel slavery or mistreatment, it is almost impossible to describe the actual experience. But there are more than a few things we can offer in addition to what has already been said. Firstly, as already noted above, it is indisputable that the Federal Government, as well as many of the States, allowed, encouraged and nurtured chattel slavery within their specific borders for identifiable periods of time. Secondly, the facts of and duration of mistreatment are even more apparent because of advancements in education and technology, which prove and document the mistreatment. No doubt, many of our library bookshelves and media rooms are flooded with items and information that objectively illustrate both periods. Moreover, many of the existing statute books and libraries throughout the country are filled with documentation and other written evidence of the existence of slavery and its aftermath. We challenge anyone to tackle the first hand accounts of former slaves that are found in the now widely available “Slave Narratives”. As noted above, you can even view forms of mistreatment in many T.V. documentaries, movies or video’s even today. And yes, many of these ugly events in the nations history still occur. While the Federal Government’s role in mistreatment has clearly been much less, both in terms of duration and gravity; nonetheless, we believe the fact of Government sanctioning, as well as Governmental “approval” is beyond dispute.
VII. Ramifications of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Rarely does a discussion pertaining to reparation for African-Americans take place without evoking a debate concerning the ramifications of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and particularly, the mortality data regarding those Africans lost in transit. It was primarily through the trade in human and other cargo, which originated in Europe, thence to Africa and from Africa to North America that Africans arrived in America. Estimates of the numbers of Africans forcibly removed from Africa and actually delivered alive by slave traders to purchasers in America vary widely; and there appears to be no means of arriving with certainty at the totals. Notwithstanding, a number of estimates agree that approximately 11 million Africans departed from Africa and approximately 9.5 million of them arrived alive. In this regard, Harvard University’s W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research has embarked on a project which collected detailed information on some 27,227 transatlantic slave trading voyages that occurred between 1650 and 1867. It is understood that the collected data cover at least two-thirds of the slaving voyages that left African ports. It is also understood that the data contains among other things, basic demographic data regarding the African slaves’ mortality, age and gender.
Whether and how losses of life of Africans during shipment to America might be factored in to the reparations analysis apparently remains an open question. As the difficulty of resolving the question generally causes most to at least temporarily, put it aside, it should not be forgotten.
Exactly where the debate concerning reparations for African Americans will lead is somewhat unpredictable at this time. A number of the Nation’s most brilliant legal minds have suggested that a number of traditional avenues of relief should be pursued on behalf of African Americans. However, they have also suggested that in the final analysis, the matter can only be resolved through “the political process”. To that end, for the last several Congressional legislative sessions, Congressman, John Conyers, of Michigan has proposed legislation encouraging Congress to sponsor a formal study of the institution of slavery, its lingering effects on African Americans and whether some form of remedial relief might be appropriate. The Conyers legislation has never been passed out of committee. It has however, kept the issue alive, as well as encouraged several local governmental units around the country, including, the City of Chicago and the City of Evanston – both in Illinois, to pass ordinances also encouraging Congress to study the matter. There has even been local legislation in a few jurisdictions requiring companies to disclose details of decades old insurance and similar transactions involving slaves. In addition, a number of public interest type activities have been undertaken around the country aimed at heightening the public’s awareness, including, forums, rallies, marches, conferences, college teach-ins and the like.
Looking back, it seems a bit ironic that we could very well end the currently brooding debate over reparation exactly where Congressman, Thaddeus Stevens, appears to have commenced the debate some 137 years ago. Only time will tell.
Notes: The African American Research Group was an informal gathering of community members meeting at Shorefront whose goal was to research topics of interest and disseminate its findings. This article originally appeared in the printed Shorefront Journal, Vol 4, Number 3, Spring 2003.
Johnathan Birnbaum and Clarence Taylor, Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press, 2000)
W.E.B. DuBois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (Corner House Publishers, 1970);
Eric Foner, Reconstruction (Harper and Rowe, 1988)
John Hope Franklin, From Slavery to Freedom (Alfred A Knopf, 1970)
Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2000);
Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade (Simon and Schuster, 1997)
Randall Robinson, The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (E.P. Dutton, 2000).
“The Case for Reparations”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic, May 21, 2014