Slavery Reparations: Past Overdue

The annals of history are stained by an undeniable era of darkness; though the genocide remains unspoken, trivialized and sanitized – Africans and persons of color were the victims of an unimaginable holocaust that spanned 400 years costing between 50 and 100 million lives.

Cities and villages were burned and razed, cultural treasures and technological contributions were ravaged and destroyed; a continent was raped – her youth and potential stolen, her resources exploited, a history was erased and a people denied their purpose and worth.

Born royalty, princes and princesses were stripped of their birthright, and they with their people robbed of God’s priceless gifts of freedom, dreams and aspirations.

With their dignity stripped, their beauty and worth denied, and families cruelly torn apart, a proud people were made outcasts in hostile, foreign lands and reduced to material property to labor and toil by an unenlightened society. Bound in chains, an innocent people were stuffed in squalid ship holes to die of hunger and sickness, to drown in ferocious storms or to survive to live an existence of degradation and hell…[1]

When Union forces captured the South in 1865 and put a formal end to slavery and its cruel and degrading practices, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and the federal government focused on restitution and reconstruction. The earliest reparations plan offered each freed slave 40 acres of land and a mule to work this land.

Under the auspices of this plan, General William Sherman (1820-1891) “set aside tracts of land in the sea islands around Charleston, SC”[2] exclusively for freed slaves. Within a short time, about “40,000 freed slaves [had been] settled on 400,000 acres in Georgia and South Carolina.”[3]

However, when President Lincoln was assassinated, his successor, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), a southerner from North Carolina, rescinded the federal government’s promise and reversed the reparations program. Former slaves were then evicted from their new lands that reverted back to white ownership. Despite Johnson’s opposition, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (1792-1868) made a feeble attempt in 1867 proposing an unsuccessful bill that again called for distributing land to freed slaves.

Ten years later, when reconstruction ended followed by the passage of repressive, restrictive laws (e.g. Jim Crow) and the formation of white terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the south, plans to address “the atrocities of slavery” and compensate its victims were forgotten. Afterwards, African-Americans saw little justice, were denied their constitutional rights, and subjected to terrorism (e.g. the entire town of Rosewood, FL was destroyed in January 1923 by white mobs while local officials sworn to uphold the law watched and even participated, leaving up to 80 black men, women, and children dead) and illegal lynching for nearly 100 years until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s finally liberated them.

By the time Lincoln’s “Emancipation Proclamation” was implemented through force, four million Africans and their descendants had been enslaved in the U.S. and its colonies from 1619 to 1865, which played an integral role in leading to and accelerating America’s rise in becoming the “most prosperous country.” With this fact, the original promise implemented by General Sherman, calculations of the “sum total of the worth of all the Black labor stolen through means of slavery, segregation, and contemporary discrimination” ranging from $5 to $24 trillion, and estimates of the original plots given to and then stolen from freed slaves being valued at about $1.5 million each,[4] the time for slave reparations is past overdue when the concept of “unjust enrichment” is pursued as advocated by Randall Robinson, the author of “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks.”

Accordingly, despite many obstacles, including legal and low support among whites, the slavery reparations movement has been revived and is “gaining momentum.”[5] In 1989, Congressman John Conyers (b. 1929) introduced H.R. 40 “to examine the effects [that slavery and its remnants –] Jim Crow have had on African-Americans since emancipation,”[6] which to date lacks the necessary support required for passage. Next in 2000, based on careful research by Deadria Farmer-Paellmann (b. 1965), an Adjunct Professor of Law at Southern New England School of Law, who discovered evidence that Aetna wrote “policies on the lives of enslaved Africans with slave owners as the beneficiaries,” the company issued an “unprecedented apology” giving birth to the “corporate restitution movement.”[7]

By 2002, nine lawsuits had been filed, the most notable in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, NY against FleetBoston Financial, CSX (a major railways firm) and Aetna for direct involvement in the slave trade. Currently cases are pending “against 20 companies from the banking, insurance, textile, railroad, and tobacco industries.” At the same time, California and twelve other states have enacted disclosure laws requiring insurance companies doing business within their boundaries to reveal “their role in slavery,” while boycotts are being staged against firms named in the Farmer-Paellmann litigation that are challenging restitution demands.[8]

Despite critics, the case for slavery reparations is convincing and strong:

The disparity between African Americans and Whites ($6000 vs. $88,000 net worth) would have been significantly smaller had President Johnson not rescinded Lincoln’s original promise or if the 1867 Reparations bill would have passed giving freed slaves “an economic foothold before waves of European immigrants poured into the U.S. during the latter decades of the 1800s.[9]

The United States has already given land away in its 230-year history. Approximately 246 million acres of “productive” land was given to about 1.5 million people through the Homestead Act. Ironically out of the 1.5 million beneficiaries that included many white immigrants, there were only 4000 native African Americans.

Internationally, land has also been awarded to compensate victims of injustices. The most notable example is the creation of Israel, which has benefited countless Holocaust (1938-1945) victims and their families.

Precedents also exist for monetary payments to victims of injustices. Since 1952, the German government and corporations (along with those of Austria and Switzerland, to name others) have paid more than $120 billion to fund early Israeli projects and compensate Holocaust survivors. Presently about 120,000 Holocaust survivors (once about 275,000) are still receiving lifetime reparation payments. At the same time, “Japanese-Americans interned during World War II are receiving reparation for their loss of property and liberty during that period” after filing a lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which “waives the government’s ‘sovereign immunity’ in some situations,”[10] and American Indian tribes have and continue to receive compensation for “lands ceded to the U.S. by them in various treaties.”[11]

Many ask, “Would reparations for slavery be just?”[12] arguing that the practice was originally legal, “[n]ot a single person directly affected by slavery remains alive,”[13] the cost of tracing lineages to slaves would be unbearable, the process next to impossible, “no one alive today owned slaves,” and that “payments based on race alone would be perceived… as a monstrous injustice… setting back race relations”[14] without healing “the ills of the black community.”[15]

Considering that, while every slave and his/her direct family are deceased, African Americans continued to suffer disproportionately from segregation, discrimination, and barbaric attacks into the late 20th century, and at times continue to be the victims of bias (e.g. racial profiling when it comes to jobs, shopping, law enforcement and voting despite equal opportunity and equal protection laws and the 1964 Civil Rights Act), remain disproportionately disenfranchised when it comes to net worth and home ownership and still suffer from a sense of a lack of self-worth versus today’s black immigrants, slavery reparations are not only just but necessary.

Holocaust reparations continue to be paid even though the genocide that murdered more than 7 million, predominantly Jews along with opponents of Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) regime and other “non-Aryans” (persons with fair-skin, light hair, and blue eyes), was legal under the democratically elected Third Reich (1933-1945) government. Thus arguments that corporations should not be punished for “legal” acts are baseless. In reality, slavery was as morally repugnant as the Holocaust and “corporations that benefited from staling people, from stealing labor, from forced breeding, from torture, from committing numerous horrendous acts,” in the words of Farmer-Paellmann “should [not] be able to hold onto assets they acquired through such horrendous acts.”[16]

Back in 1999, more than 50 years after the end of the Holocaust, Jewish groups seeking at least $20 billion in new reparations called a $3.3 billion offer made by a German delegation representing the country’s government and corporations “disgusting.” They later agreed on a $5.2 billion “Nazi slave [compensation] fund” that was approved by the German Parliament in 2000. However, while these negotiations were being held, “the World Council of Orthodox Jewish Communities filed a[nother] lawsuit in the U.S. against Deutsche Bank, Germany’s second-largest bank, alleging that it funded and profited from Nazi atrocities.”[17]

Based on these two cases alone, the passage of time and existing “legalities” of the prevailing era, are irrelevant when it comes to redressing inhuman acts like the Holocaust and slavery if justice is to be served. “Slavery harmed slaves and thus, indirectly, their descendants.”[18] Furthermore, as there is no statute of limitations when it comes to the Holocaust, it can also be argued that none should exist when it comes to slavery especially since “African Americans were not allowed access to the courts in any meaningful way – even long after the Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was passed [in December 1865].” Also, consistent with California’s legislation that revised existing statutes of limitations to ensure that “certain Holocaust suits would not be time-barred,”[19] legislation can also provide extensions to African Americans so as not to perpetuate past injustices that were every bit as evil as those committed by the Third Reich.

Therefore, arguments that slavery reparations are illogical and “that tax dollars [and corporate holdings] should not be used for [this] compensation”[20] are equally as “disgusting.” Per Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968), the only practical route is for “all citizens [to] engage as full participants in a dialogue examining what is the cost of repairing our society to make it equally accessible to everyone”[21] rather than dismissing and denying the need for past due reparations to the African American community.

In addition, the commentary offered during the 1999 Holocaust compensation fight regarding monetary payments is as appropriate to slavery reparations as it was during these negotiations when it was stated, “how to quantify this in financial terms is a difficult question… Money itself cannot bring back the dead, nor can it erase the memory of years of forced labor, but those seeking compensation say it may be the best system there is.”[22] While no amount of money nor steps can redress the sins of slavery, such reparations with a formal national condemnation of and apology for the practice can bring justice and healing, boost the self-esteem of African Americans, reduce current racial net worth and private property ownership gaps, improve standards of life for black Americans, and provide them with new opportunities that might otherwise remain unattainable for generations to come.

Although it may be impossible to give direct compensation to most slave descendants, every effort should be made to locate and compensate those with confirmed direct lineages and to African Americans who had suffered under segregation. In addition, slavery reparations funds should contribute to black foundations, black scholarships, and black community projects aimed at improving infrastructure and standards of life, especially since precedents already exist for the latter. When Germany began Holocaust reparations payments, Bonn “funded about a third of the total investment in Israel’s electrical system… and nearly half the total investment in [Israel’s] railways, [consisting of] diesel engines, cars, tracks, and signaling equipment [along with] equipment for [agriculture, construction, expanding the country’s] water supply, for oil drilling, and for operating the [country’s] copper mines.”[23]

Based on the examples of national corporate and government contributions to Holocaust reparations funds, it is not impractical, nor unfeasible for the governments and corporations of the United States, United Kingdom and other European states that benefited from slavery to make payments to slavery reparations funds. When the United States is considered, many of the named firms that have directly and/or indirectly benefited from slavery have sufficient assets and annual profits while the national government has millions of acres of federal land and holdings to utilize for slavery reparations.

Furthermore, the federal government could add a line underneath the “Presidential Election Campaign” section that reads “Slavery and Civil Rights Reparations – Check here if you, or your spouse if filing jointly, want $3 to go to this fund” on every federal tax return while states, especially those in the south that benefited the most from the slave trade and labor, most of which already have contribution lines for causes ranging from breast cancer research to wildlife, could also add such a line.

In conclusion, the African American community and advocates for justice must stand united and demand slavery reparations as stridently as the Jewish community and advocates for justice have for Holocaust compensation. Both abominations require reparations and redress since they share great similarities – morally repugnant brutal treatment and forced labor considered legal in their respective times under ruling governments that perpetrated and encouraged them, and each has cost millions of lives. As the BBC states in “The long fight for Holocaust compensation” reparations are “particularly pertinent for a generation that has little direct memory of the Holocaust [since these financial payments are] akin to acknowledging the horrors of the past and the responsibility of the present generation for ensuring that it does not happen again” such payments are equally applicable for the past practice of slavery.

In the accurate and eloquent words of Kimberley Jane Wilson, “American slavery was a sin… The principles of liberty, justice and equality didn’t apply to the millions of Africans brought to America against their will. Our history is full of racial ironies. When Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) wrote, ‘All men are created equal,’ he owned 187 slaves. Patrick Henry (1736-1799) owned over 90 slaves when he shouted the famous words, ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’ Union General Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) fought the Confederacy, but didn’t free his own slaves until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Even after slavery ended, America – the beacon of freedom to people all over the world – still treated black Americans with indignity and, on occasion, savage cruelty.”[24]

Accordingly the long wait and many denials must end so that accruing damages can be mitigated and healing can begin. Slavery reparations must be made as soon as possible to establish greater unity with improved standards of life for all, including African Americans. Only then can racism, even if predominantly de facto in nature, be extinguished for once and for all.

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[1] William Sutherland. The Unspoken Holocaust. The International Who’s Who In Poetry. (The International Library of Poetry. Owings Mills, MD 2004) 3.

[2] Reparations for slavery. Wikipedia. 4 September 2006. 16 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reparations_for_slavery

[3] Reparations for slavery. Wikipedia. 4 September 2006. 16 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reparations_for_slavery

[4] William Reed. Blacks worth $6k; whites $88k. Insight News. 12 September 2006. 16 September 2006. [http://www.insightnews.com/business.asp?mode=display&articleID=2617]

[5] Making Amends: Debate Continues Over Reparations for U.S. Slavery. NPR. 12 September 2006. 16 September 2006. http://www.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010827.reparations.html

[6] William Reed. Blacks worth $6k; whites $88k. Insight News. 12 September 2006. 16 September 2006. [http://www.insightnews.com/business.asp?mode=display&articleID=2617]

[7] Reparations for slavery. Wikipedia. 4 September 2006. 16 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reparations_for_slavery

[8] Reparations for slavery. Wikipedia. 4 September 2006. 16 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reparations_for_slavery

[9] William Reed. Blacks worth $6k; whites $88k. Insight News. 12 September 2006. 16 September 2006. [http://www.insightnews.com/business.asp?mode=display&articleID=2617]

[10] Anthony J. Sebok. Should Claims Based On African-American Slavery Be Litigated In The Courts? And If So, How? FindLaw. 4 December 2000. 16 September 2006. http://writ.corporate.findlaw.com/sebok/20001204.html

[11] Reparations for slavery. Wikipedia. 4 September 2006. 16 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reparations_for_slavery

[12] Would Reparations for Slavery be Just? The Claremont Institute. 5 May 2002. 12 September 2006. http://www.claremont.org/writings/020505erler.html

[13] Even if Millions Rally on the Mall, Reparations Won’t Heal Black America. Project 21 Press Release. 15 August 2002. 12 September 2006. http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21PRReparations802.html

[14] Civil Rights: Should Black Americans Receive Reparations Payments Because of Slavery? The National Center For Public Policy Research. 23 August 2004. 12 September 2006. http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21PRReparations802.html

[15] Even if Millions Rally on the Mall, Reparations Won’t Heal Black America. Project 21 Press Release. 15 August 2002. 12 September 2006. http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21PRReparations802.html

[16] Peter Viles. Suit seeks billions in slave reparations. CNN.com. 27 March 2002. 16 September 2006. http://archives.cnn.com/2002/LAW/03/26/slavery.reparations

[17] World: Europe Nazi slave offer ‘disgusting.’ BBC News. 7 October 1999. 12 September 2006. [http://nws.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/468248.stm]

[18] Civil Rights: Should Black Americans Receive Reparations Payments Because of Slavery? The National Center For Public Policy Research. 23 August 2004. 12 September 2006. http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21PRReparations802.html

[19] Anthony J. Sebok. Should Claims Based On African-American Slavery Be Litigated In The Courts? And If So, How? FindLaw. 4 December 2000. 16 September 2006. http://writ.corporate.findlaw.com/sebok/20001204.html

[20] Making Amends: Debate Continues Over Reparations for U.S. Slavery. NPR. 12 September 2006. 16 September 2006. http://www.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010827.reparations.html

[21] Civil Rights: Should Black Americans Receive Reparations Payments Because of Slavery? The National Center For Public Policy Research. 23 August 2004. 12 September 2006. http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21PRReparations802.html

[22] The long fight for Holocaust compensation. BBC News. 26 January 2000. 12 September 2006. [http://nws.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/619896.stm]

[23] Norman G. Finkelstein. Lessons of Holocaust Compensation. 2001. 12 September 2006. http://www.normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=4&ar=14

[24] Kimberley Jane Wilson. Reparations, Anyone? Project 21 New Visions Commentary. August 2001. 12 September 2006. http://www.nationalcenter.org/P21NVWilsonReparations801.html

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Additional Sources:

$5bn Nazi slave fund agreed.’ BBC News. 14 December 1999. 12 September 2006. [http://nws.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/565116.stm]

Anthony J. Sebok. A New Dream Team Intends To Seek Reparations For Slavery Part I FindLaw. 20 November 2000. 16 September 2006. http://writ.corporate.findlaw.com/sebok/20001120.html

German Parliament Passes Nazi Holocaust Compensation Bill. People’s Daily. 7 July 2000. 12 September 2006. http://english.people.com.cn/english/200007/07/eng20000707_44925.html

Holocaust reparations. Wikipedia. 25 May 2006. 16 September 2006. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holocaust_reparations

Sara R. Parsowith. Austria begins Holocaust compensation process. Jurist. 16 December 2005. 16 September 2006. http://jurist.law.pitt.edu/paperchase/2005/12/austria-begins-holocaust-compensation.php