Confronting Slavery’s Legacy: The Reparations Question

As we have seen , the quest for retrospective justice is a global phenomenon, with a host of different groups proffering claims for some form of acknowledgment or material consideration for historical injuries. In the United States alone, legislatures and courts have entertained reparations claims from Japanese Americans interned during World War II; Indigenous Hawaiians seeking compensation for lost land and sovereignty; Native Americans seeking the return of ancestral land and sacred relics; Korean “comfort women”; American veterans subjected to severe abuse in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps during World War II; descendants of victims of the Armenian genocide pursuing unpaid insurance claims from American corporations; Jews and non-Jews compelled to work as slave laborers by the Nazis; families of Holocaust victims seeking the return of artwork, bank deposits, and other assets stolen during World War II; and the families of people killed in the 9/11 terror attacks, to name only some of the recent cases. But the claims that have generated the most controversy — the claims that most Americans immediately think of when they hear the word “reparations” — are those advanced by African Americans seeking redress for the injuries of slavery.124

The Modern Reparations Debate and Brown University

While debates over reparations for slavery have a long history in the United States, the recent salience of the issue can be traced to the 1990s. Inspired in part by the successes of other historical redress movements, a growing number of African American individuals and groups began to press for reparations for the injuries of slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. The resulting debate, unfolding in legislatures, federal courts, and in the court of public opinion, has proceeded along distinctly racial lines. Contrary to some media portrayals, not all African Americans advocate slavery reparations. Many regard the idea with indifference; some are vociferously opposed. But when surveyed on the matter, a majority of Black Americans express support for some form of reparations for slavery — somewhere between half and two-thirds, depending on how the question is posed. White Americans, in contrast, are almost unanimously opposed — and often intensely hostile — to the idea, particularly when the question centers on monetary payments. The most systematic study, conducted by scholars at Harvard and the University of Chicago, found that just four percent of white respondents believed that “the Federal Government [should] pay monetary compensation to African Americans whose ancestors were slaves.”125

The theft of the newspapers by student protestors was widely cited in the national media as evidence of Brown’s failure to nurture the free exchange of ideas. Among the newspapers chiding the University was the New York Times, which noted that “overlooked in much of the uproar over [the Herald’s] publication of the advertisement is the deeper national debate on reparations over slavery, which could have found fertile ground for discussion on this campus.”

Just as Brown was an important terrain in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century battles over slavery and abolition, so did it find itself thrust into the middle of the modern slave reparations debate. In 2001, conservative author David Horowitz placed a paid advertisement, “Ten Ideas Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea — and Racist Too,” in college newspapers around the country, including the Brown Daily Herald. As its title suggests, the advertisement offered a series of arguments against reparations: that Black as well as white Americans had benefited economically from slavery; that reparations had already been paid in the form of “welfare benefits and racial preferences”; that “most Americans have no connection (direct or indirect) to slavery”; that the continuing “hardships” of some African Americans were a “result of failures of individual character rather than the after-effects of racial discrimination and a slave system that ceased to exist well over a century ago.” The appearance of the advertisement provoked controversy on several college campuses, nowhere more than at Brown, where a group of student protestors demanded that the Herald print a retraction or at least relinquish the money it had received to run the ad. When the editors refused, some of the protestors stole an entire day’s press run of the paper. The papers were later returned, but the story of the theft appeared in newspapers all across the United States, often accompanied by editorials pillorying Brown for its failure to protect the free exchange of ideas. Among the newspapers chiding the University was the New York Times, which noted that “overlooked in much of the uproar over [the Herald’s] publication of the advertisement is the deeper national debate on reparations over slavery, which could have found fertile ground for discussion on this campus.”126

The issue resurfaced at Brown in 2002, with the filing of the first in a series of class-action lawsuits by descendants of African American slaves seeking monetary damages from private corporations alleged to have profited from slavery and the slave trade. As fate would have it, the first defendant in the first suit was FleetBoston, a bank whose lineage traces back to the Providence Bank, founded by the four Brown brothers in 1791. While Brown was not a named party in the action, it was mentioned (along with Harvard) in the narrative portion of the complaint as an example of a wealthy institution with assets derived from slavery and the slave trade. A few days later, Harvard University Law Professor Charles Ogletree, chair of a recently established Reparations Coordinating Committee, published an opinion essay in the New York Times announcing that Brown, Yale, and Harvard were all “probable targets” of a lawsuit to be filed by his organization later that year.127

The threatened lawsuit was never filed. As for the other suits, federal courts have dismissed virtually all of them on various procedural grounds. At this writing, there seems to be little chance that federal courts will entertain slavery reparations claims. But this outcome was not clear when the Steering Committee began its work, which doubtless accounts for some of the public interest aroused by news of the Committee’s appointment.

Reparations in Historical Perspective

In keeping with its charge from President Simmons, the Steering Committee devoted a great deal of attention to the slavery reparations issue. We organized several programs on the topic, hosting public addresses by prominent supporters and critics of reparations, as well as by scholars studying the issue’s legal, theological, political, and philosophical underpinnings. Our goal, again in keeping with our charge, was not to resolve the issue but rather to “provide factual information and critical perspectives” to enrich discussion of the issue on our campus and in the nation as a whole. As our research proceeded, we became particularly interested in the historical roots of the reparations issue, a context that is almost completely ignored in the current controversy. What actually happened when slavery was abolished, first in northern states like Rhode Island and later in the American South? What burdens did slavery impose — not simply on the formerly enslaved, but on the nation as a whole — and what attempts were made to alleviate them? What forms have demands for redress taken at different times, and what responses have they elicited? In short, where did the reparations issue come from?

And when thou sendest him out free from thee, thou shalt not let him go away empty: Thou shalt furnish him liberally out of thy flock, and out of thy floor, and out of thy winepress: of that wherewith the LORD thy God hath blessed thee thou shalt give unto him. And thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day.

— Deuteronomy 15:13–15

Probably the most striking thing that our investigation revealed was just how long the debate has raged. In both the North and the South, the post-emancipation years saw widespread acknowledgment of slavery’s terrible legacy, as well as a variety of proposals for remedying it, from the colonization of Black people beyond the borders of the United States to programs of land redistribution and publicly funded education. A few such programs were begun. But in the end, very little was done to compensate the newly free for their years of unremunerated toil, and still less was done to bridge the racial chasm that slavery had carved in the nation. On the contrary, the years after abolition saw an intensification of white racist attitudes, accompanied by the enactment of policies designed to ensure continued Black subordination and to perpetuate the economic disparities inherited from slavery. What bearing this history has on current reparations demands is an issue on which different readers will draw different conclusions, but it certainly deserves to be entered into the debate.

Reparations Arguments in the Eighteenth Century

Surely the most common misconception about the slavery reparations issue is that it is new — a “scam” (in the words of a recent Providence Journal editorial) “devised by trial lawyers to keep the victim industry humming and themselves rich.” In fact, the debate reaches back to the eighteenth century, with Providence as one of the main theaters. The Quakers who spearheaded the anti-slavery movement in Rhode Island were virtually unanimous in insisting that manumitted slaves were entitled to reparations from their masters, finding warrant in Scripture (particularly the Book of Deuteronomy, which enjoins masters to share their estates with former slaves as a show of respect and appreciation) as well as in the demands of plain justice. If holding another person in slavery was sinful, the Quakers reckoned, then surely perpetrators should atone for the offense by offering some kind of amends to their victims. Moses Brown had not yet been formally admitted to Quaker meeting when he manumitted his slaves in 1773, but he recognized this obligation, providing his former slaves with access to land and a promise of education for their children.128

The 1784 Rhode Island Gradual Abolition Law specified that the children of slaves were to be “instructed in reading, writing, and Arithmetic” at public expense. A year later, however, the legislature amended the law, after towns protested that providing “Support and Education” to the children of slaves was “extremely burthensome.”

In 1783, the Massachusetts legislature entertained one of the earliest extant reparations petitions. The appellant was an aged African-born woman named Belinda, who sought a small portion of the estate of her erstwhile master, Isaac Royall. A British loyalist, Royall had fled Massachusetts shortly after the battles of Lexington and Concord. His property was confiscated by the legislature, and Belinda, who had served him for forty years, became free. But she was old and without any means to provide for herself and her invalid daughter, forcing her to turn to the state. While the petition’s authorship is unclear — other sources suggest that Belinda was illiterate — there is no doubting the power of the words, which traced her life from her capture in Africa to her current plight, in which, “by the very laws of the land, [she] is denied one morsel of that immense wealth, a part whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.” Whether motivated by sympathy, principle, or the pleasure of disbursing the estate of a disgraced Loyalist, the Massachusetts legislature awarded Belinda and her daughter a £15 annual pension, though it is unclear how long the payments were made.129

Belinda’s petition is reprinted in Vincent Carretta (ed.), Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996), 142–144. It appears that the pension ceased after a year or two, prompting Belinda to file another petition in 1787, after which she disappears from the historical record. Isaac Royall, who had made his fortune as a Caribbean planter before settling in Massachusetts, also has the distinction of endowing the first law professorship in American history, the Royall Professorship at Harvard Law School.

Freedom Dues and the Problem of Gradual Abolition

The idea that former slaves were entitled to reparations would not have seemed outlandish to most eighteenth-century Americans. In a society in which individual towns were responsible for the indigent, it was customary to provide the newly free with some form of provision to ensure that they did not become “chargeable” to the public. Apprentices acquired marketable skills as well as an elementary education. Indentured servants received “freedom dues” upon the end of their terms, typically land and a suit of clothes, to mark their new status. The question, put simply, was whether Black people emerging into freedom would receive similar consideration. The problem was complicated, in Rhode Island and in most other northern states, by the nature of the gradual abolition process. Rhode Island’s abolition law freed no one, but merely specified that individuals born in the state after March 1, 1784, would be free. The issue of slavery reparations was thus entangled with the immediate question of providing for the maintenance of small children whose parents, or at least mothers, were still enslaved.

The Rhode Island legislature recognized the problem, and debated how to address it. In the original Gradual Abolition Act, infants were left in the care of their mothers, while the responsibility for supporting them was placed on individual towns. This responsibility included a publicly funded education. In a passage that clearly bore the imprint of Moses Brown, the act specified that “such Children be educated in the Principles of Morality and Religion, and instructed in reading, writing, and Arithmetic” — a promise that routinely appeared in indenture agreements involving white children, but that had never previously been applied to Black children. A year later, however, the legislature amended the law, after towns protested that providing “Support and Education” to the children of slaves was “extremely burthensome.” The new act shifted the onus back onto individual masters, who became responsible for the upkeep of their female slaves’ freeborn children. To compensate the masters for assuming these costs, as well as for the loss of valuable property, the amended law required such children to serve their mothers’ owners — in effect, to serve as slaves — for terms of twenty-one years. The amended law said nothing about compensating or educating the newly free. The promise of publicly funded education simply fell away.130

After Slavery: Free People of Color in Rhode Island

In the end, Rhode Island’s newly free received nothing, entering society not as independent citizens but as quasi-slaves, members of an impoverished and degraded class. A kind of self-fulfilling cycle was created, with Blacks’ degraded condition offering seeming proof of prevailing assumptions about their innate inferiority and dependence, thus justifying continued discrimination against them. Racial lines hardened. Free people of color faced exclusion from public facilities and all but the most menial jobs. They were subject to a nightly curfew, enforced by white patrols, and required to “bind out” their children as apprentices, as insurance against “idleness.” In 1798, the Rhode Island legislature, alarmed by an apparent increase in the free Black population, made it more difficult for masters to free their slaves, while also increasing the penalties for anyone caught abetting fugitives. Another law, passed the same year, prohibited the marriage of “any white person with any Negro, Indian, or mulatto.” (The law apparently did not prevent sexual congress across the color line, since two years later the legislature barred Black women, free or slave, from bringing paternity suits against white men.) Rhode Island was also one of two New England states to racialize the franchise. In 1822, a six-person committee of the legislature (including five Brown alumni and two members of the Brown Corporation) inserted the word “white” into the state’s voting laws, disenfranchising even the small number of Black men who met the property qualification.131

A detail of a broadside shows a caricature drawing of a column of black, military-clad soldiers following their commander on a white horse.

The "Bobalition" broadside, a racist caricature produced in New England c. 1830, mocks Black pretensions to freedom and citizenship.

The Broadsides Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University.

In Rhode Island, as elsewhere, the impulse to exclude free Black people existed in counterpoint with the impulse to control them. During slavery, most Black people lived in or near their masters’ homes, ensuring close supervision. The emergence of distinct Black neighborhoods after emancipation generated great anxiety among whites, who saw such districts as dangerously disorderly, vice-ridden places. The result, in cities all across the North, was a wave of “race riots” — essentially pogroms, in which white mobs rampaged through Black neighborhoods, burning buildings and beating inhabitants. Providence experienced two such riots. Hardscrabble, an aptly named Black neighborhood, was attacked by a mob in 1824. Snow Town was razed seven years later. Victims of the attacks were not compensated for their losses, nor were the perpetrators punished for their crimes. The Hardscrabble rioters were prosecuted, but they escaped with acquittals or token sentences after a rousing speech by their defense attorney, Joseph Tillinghast, a Brown alumnus and future member of the Brown Corporation, who compared the destroyed neighborhood to “ancient Babylon,” with its “graven images” and “idolatrous rites and sacrifices.” Hardscrabble, Tillinghast declared, was a “nuisance” and “sink of vice” whose destruction was a “benefit to the morals of the community.”132

Black Rhode Islanders and the Quest for Education

Black Rhode Islanders did not simply submit to this regime. They created businesses, organized churches and benevolent societies, and defended their right to urban space. The Hardscrabble riot, for example, was sparked by a group of Black men refusing to cede the sidewalk to a group of approaching whites. Above all, they sought education. Denied the publicly funded education pledged in the original act of abolition and excluded from most private academies, Blacks in Providence launched a subscription campaign to build a school of their own. The fruit of their efforts was the “African Union Meeting and School-House,” which opened in 1821, on land donated by Moses Brown.133

In 1858 and ’59, as the nation tumbled toward civil war, the politics of Rhode Island were consumed by the debate over integrating public schools. The terms of the debate eerily anticipated the struggle over southern integration a century later, with proponents of integration speaking of benefits of mingling “different classes of children” and their more numerous opponents dismissing the idea as the work of irresponsible “new comers and agitators.”

Broadside titled ‘Hard Scrabble, or Miss Philises Bobalition’

A broadside dated c. 1824 ridicules victims of the Hardscrabble riot and promises the same to other Black people settling in the city.

The Broadsides Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University.

After decades of petitions and proposals, the Rhode Island state legislature finally created a system of public education in 1828. But the system was racially segregated, with Blacks in Providence confined to a single, overcrowded school offering only elementary instruction. The segregated system persisted until the late 1850s, when Black citizens, inspired by successful litigation in neighboring Massachusetts, launched a campaign to integrate public schools. In 1858 and ’59, as the nation tumbled toward civil war, the politics of Rhode Island were consumed by the debate, the terms of which eerily anticipated the struggle over integrating southern schools a century later. While proponents of integration spoke of the principles of democracy and the benefits of mingling “different classes of children,” their more numerous opponents dismissed the proposal as the work of irresponsible “new comers and agitators.” Integrationists “would see our public schools quite broken up, and our means of public education quite destroyed, rather than that one little nigger boy should be compelled to go to the school that has been assigned to him,” the editors of the Providence Journal opined. “Nor is it proper,” they added in a subsequent editorial, “that our public education, supported at such great cost, should be made subordinate to any theories of a social equality that does not exist and never has existed … [S]eparation of the negro children from the white children … is best for both.”134

Abolishing Southern Slavery, 1862–1865

The struggles over the meaning of Black freedom in Rhode Island and other northern states would be repeated, in different terms and on a vastly greater scale, in the American South. Southern slavery did not end through gradualist legislation but in the context of civil war. In April 1862, a year after the commencement of hostilities, the U.S. Congress passed the Compensated Emancipation Act, abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia. The compensation referred to in the title went not to the newly free but to their former owners, who received, on average, $300 from the federal government for each emancipated slave. Six months later, President Abraham Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, to take effect on January 1, 1863. As numerous historians have noted, the proclamation freed no one immediately; its provisions applied only to regions still in rebellion, leaving slavery intact in the border states and other areas under Union occupation. Even so, the proclamation radically altered the character of the war, transforming the advancing Union Army into an army of liberation. The proclamation also included provisions for enlisting Black soldiers, nearly a quarter million of whom eventually served in Union forces, further consolidating Black claims to freedom and citizenship. With the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in December 1865, slavery in the United States was formally abolished, and four million men, women, and children became free.135

Reconstruction and the Reparations Question

The Civil War was followed by the era of Reconstruction. While much about the period is disputed, certain facts are clear. In the immediate aftermath of the war, southern legislatures, still dominated by the old planter class, sought to recreate slavery by other means, imposing curfews, vagrancy statutes, and other “Black Codes” designed to restrict the physical and economic mobility of the newly free. This period was followed, from 1866 to 1876, by Congressional, or Radical, Reconstruction, which saw an attempt to extend basic rights of citizenship to African Americans. These years were highlighted by the adoption of two more amendments to the U.S. Constitution: the Fourteenth Amendment, which barred states from discriminating on the grounds of race, color, or prior condition of servitude; and the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibited states from imposing racially based restrictions on voting. Over the next few years, southern Blacks entered the political system, voting and serving in public office, including in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate. The enfranchisement of African Americans generated bitter controversy. As in the post-emancipation North, the racial ideas forged in the crucible of slavery did not simply disappear with abolition; on the contrary, they became sharper, as white southerners found themselves forced to compete economically and politically with their former bondsmen. The result was a concerted campaign of violence and intimidation, culminating in the restoration of avowedly white supremacist regimes in all of the southern states. With the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, the Reconstruction experiment was essentially over.136

Though the term “reparations” was rarely, if ever, used, emancipation triggered a wide-ranging debate over how and whether to provide for the newly free, a debate that began while the war was still going on and continued even after the collapse of Reconstruction. For some, including Abraham Lincoln for a time, the solution appeared to lie in government-subsidized colonization. Convinced that white southerners would never accept their former slaves as political equals, colonizationists argued that it was in Black people’s own interests to leave America and start afresh in a country of their own. Others insisted that African Americans had a fundamental right to remain in the United States, sharing in the wealth and opportunity that their unpaid labor had helped to create. A few argued that freedpeople were entitled to receive back wages for their years in slavery, offering various calculations of the amount due. At least one freedman sent a bill to his former owner for his years of unpaid labor. In the end, however, the reparations debate after the Civil War came to focus on land — the proverbial “forty acres and a mule.”137

Forty Acres and a Mule

Few phrases in American history evoke such passion — or such disparate understandings — as forty acres and a mule. For many whites, at the time and still today, the idea of the federal government handing out land to freedpeople was and is a harebrained notion — “the Negroes’ forty acre delusion,” to quote one historian. For many African Americans, on the other hand, the granting of forty acres of land was a solemn promise on which the nation has yet to make good. Not surprisingly, the issue looms large in the modern slavery reparations movement. Plaintiffs in several prominent reparations suits have cited the promise of forty acres as the basis for tort action or for calculating the damages due to African Americans. (The most generous calculation, based on average southern land values in 1865 and six percent interest per annum, puts the current value of forty acres at about $1.5 million.) The power of the idea is also apparent in the designation of H.R. 40, a bill proposed by Congressman John Conyers (D-Mich.) to convene a national commission to study slavery and its legacy and to make recommendations to Congress on appropriate remedies. Originally introduced as H.R. 3745, the bill was later renamed H.R. 40 to link it with the historic claim to forty acres.138

Few phrases in American history evoke such passion as “forty acres and a mule.” For many whites, at the time and still today, the idea of dispensing land to freedpeople was and is a delusion. For many African Americans, on the other hand, the promise of forty acres of land was a solemn pledge on which the nation has yet to make good. Not surprisingly, the issue looms large in the modern slavery reparations movement.

Today, as at the time, the status of the forty acre claim rests on the meaning of a series of laws and orders promulgated during and immediately after the Civil War. In 1862, shortly after the war began, Congress passed an act permitting the U.S. government to confiscate the property of those who had taken up arms against it. Most of the subsequent controversy over land redistribution centered on such property. What is often overlooked in discussions today is the fact that the bill authorized confiscation for only one generation, in deference to the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of bills of attainder; after the original owner died, title to the land was to revert to his heirs. Similar uncertainties underlay General Sherman’s famous Field Order #15 of January 1865, the order from which the phrase “forty acres and a mule” comes. Finding the mobility of his army hampered by thousands of Black refugees, Sherman designated a swath of abandoned rebel lands, stretching south from Charleston and thirty miles inland from the sea, for the exclusive occupation of Blacks. The order, which conferred only possessory, or temporary, title, specified that the land be divided into homesteads not exceeding forty acres per family, with use rights to surplus army mules for plowing. Six weeks later, the U.S. Congress gave an apparent statutory basis to Sherman’s order when it passed the first Freedmen’s Bureau Act. The act empowered the newly created bureau to resettle former slaves (and white refugees who had remained loyal to the Union) onto homesteads not exceeding forty acres, granting them an exclusive right to occupy the land for three years, in exchange for a nominal rent. At the end of the term, occupants would have an option to purchase the land. But this bill too was ambiguous, specifying that purchasers would receive only “such title … as the United States can convey” — an acknowledgment of Congress’ own uncertainty of its right to dispose of the land permanently.139

Even these tentative steps were too much for Andrew Johnson, who acceded to the presidency after Lincoln’s assassination. A former slaveowner, Johnson had accepted emancipation during the Civil War, but he was no friend to racial equality. “This is a country for white men,” he once declared, “and as long as I am President, it shall be a government for white men.” True to his word, Johnson issued blanket pardons to former rebels and ordered the return of confiscated and abandoned land to its original owners. Black people occupying the land were given the option of signing labor contracts with restored white landlords or leaving. When Congress passed a second Freedmen’s Bureau bill in 1866, extending the life of the bureau, Johnson vetoed it, arguing that it conferred on Black people rights that the government had never granted to “our own people.” Johnson’s veto of the bill, as well as of the landmark 1866 Civil Rights bill, contributed to the escalating conflict between the executive and legislative branches of the government, which culminated in the President’s impeachment and near removal from office. But on the issue of land redistribution, the President carried the day. Congress eventually enacted a second Freedmen’s Bureau bill (over Johnson’s veto), but the idea of redistributing land to former slaves had disappeared. What little land Black southerners ultimately obtained from the federal government came not as reparations for slavery but through the operation of the 1866 Southern Homestead Act, which opened up a portion of public lands for private purchase, with freedmen (and loyal whites) enjoying an exclusive option for the first six months. But few former slaves had money to buy the land, most of which ended up in the hands of private timber companies.140

The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes made free by acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States … each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground. . . . In order to carry out this system of settlement, a general officer will be detailed as Inspector of Settlements … who will furnish personally to each head of family, subject to the approval of the President of the United States, a possessory title in writing, giving as near as possible a description of boundaries; and who shall adjust all claims or conflicts that may arise under the same, subject to the like approval, treating such titles altogether as possessory …

— Field Order 15, Major General William Tecumseh Sherman, January 16, 1865

Whether the facts of the postwar struggle over land redistribution bolster the claims of advocates of reparations or their opponents is a matter of interpretation. Clearly there was widespread debate about the issue. Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens, Wendell Phillips, and Charles Sumner warned that, without a thoroughgoing change in southern land titles, the old master class would retain political power and freedpeople would remain in a position of abject dependence. Others warned that redistributing land would itself breed dependency, teaching the freedpeople to rely on federal largesse rather than on their own industry. Still others opposed land redistribution precisely to ensure continued Black dependency. If Black people were given land, one Pennsylvania senator asked, “Who would black boots and curry the horses, who would do the menial offices of the world?” As for the freedpeople themselves, most assumed that the land they had been allotted under Field Order #15 and later under the first Freedmen’s Bureau Act would be theirs in perpetuity, and the federal government’s decision to restore it to white rebels was a shattering and bewildering betrayal. One hundred and forty years later, the phrase “forty acres and a mule” still carries the resonance of their feelings.141

Black life in the Era of Jim Crow

The single inescapable fact is that freedpeople did not receive land during Reconstruction. Nor did they receive monetary compensation, access to credit, use rights to surplus government mules, or anything else that might have provided a material foundation for their newly acquired civil and political rights. In the decades that followed, they would be dispossessed of these rights as well. By century’s end, Black southerners had been effectively disenfranchised and consigned to a rigid system of “Jim Crow” segregation, encompassing everything from schools and streetcars to the separate “white” and “colored” Bibles used to swear witnesses in southern courtrooms. The process was abetted by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which narrowed Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process and equal protection of the laws down to a nullity while giving a constitutional seal of approval to the various devices — poll taxes, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, closed primaries — invented by southern states to nullify Blacks’ right to vote. Ultimately it would take nearly a century, until the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, for African Americans to reclaim the rights they had briefly enjoyed during Reconstruction.142

While Radical Republicans promoted land redistribution as the only way to guarantee the economic independence of the newly free, others opposed it precisely to ensure continued Black dependency. If Black people were given land, one Pennsylvania senator asked, “Who would black boots and curry the horses, who would do the menial offices of the world?”

The character of the political and economic regime that emerged during the Jim Crow era was starkly revealed in convict leasing, one of the signatures of the “New South” criminal justice system. Under the system, the roots of which traced back to slavery, Black male prisoners were leased out as forced laborers. The prisoners, many of whom had been arrested for vagrancy or other petty crimes, worked not only on roads and other public works but also in private enterprises, including farms, mines, and factories. Numerous historians have documented the substantial profits that flowed to the system’s operators, as well as the brutal treatment meted out to leased Black convicts, many of whom died before completing their sentences.143

White supremacy was reinforced by other, less dramatic forms of social control, ranging from cultural practices such as “coon songs” and blackface minstrelsy to scholarly treatises in emerging disciplines such as anthropology and sociology. Social Darwinism, the signature ideology of the late nineteenth century, gave a seemingly scientific imprimatur to stereotypes of Blacks as “unfit” racial stock, incapable of bearing the responsibilities of citizenship. Drawing on what was later shown to be specious census data, many scholars predicted that African Americans would soon become extinct. Incapable of surviving as free people in a competitive economy, Black people in America were destined to die out, just like the allegedly “vanishing Indian.” White insurance companies used such beliefs to justify their refusal to insure African Americans, a practice that continued long after the underlying arguments had been discredited.144

Lynch Law and the 2005 U.S. Senate Apology

Black southerners resisted assaults on their freedom. They struggled to acquire land and voted when they could. They armed themselves, organizing militias and Union clubs to repel nightriders. Denied service by white banks, hotels, and insurance companies, they created their own. But resistance carried its own risks. Between 1880 and 1930, at least thirty-five hundred African Americans were lynched in the United States. As Memphis editor Ida B. Wells noted at the time, lynch mobs, while typically justifying their actions in terms of protecting white women from rapacious Black men, routinely targeted those who were economically successful or simply defiant. In virtually no cases were perpetrators convicted of or even tried for their crimes. Recognizing the impossibility of securing convictions in southern courts, activists waged a half-century campaign for a federal anti-lynching statute, but their bills invariably failed to pass in the U.S. Senate. It was this history that lay behind the 2005 Senate lynching apology.145

Education and the Meaning of Black Freedom

If the struggle over land redistribution was the most important arena for determining the meaning of Black freedom after the Civil War, then the struggle over schooling was the second most important. In the nineteenth century, even more than in our own time, education was the cornerstone of America’s democratic faith, the foundation of cherished ideas about opportunity, meritocracy, and mobility. It was also an arena in which the legacy of slavery could not have been more blatant: in most southern states, it was a crime to teach a slave to read. As a member of the Virginia state legislature declared in 1832, “we have, as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light can enter. If we could extinguish the capacity to see light, our work would be completed; they would then be on a level with the beasts of the field, and we should be safe.”146

With the coming of emancipation, many people, Black and white, saw education as the best means to repair the damage of slavery and prepare the newly free for the full enjoyment of their rights as citizens. Even before the war was over, northern teachers and missionaries had begun flocking south in what W.E.B. Du Bois later dubbed “the crusade of the New England schoolm’am.” Hundreds of schools were opened across the region, some by Black people themselves, others under the auspices of the Freedmen’s Bureau or reconstructed state governments. Though typically understaffed and underfunded, these schools enabled hundreds of thousands of African Americans, adults as well as children, to learn to read.147

Not everyone approved of the idea of educating freedpeople, and Black schools were a frequent target of vandals and arsonists. With the onset of Jim Crow, education came in for renewed assault. Though the Fourteenth Amendment prevented southern legislatures from closing Black schools outright, such schools were rigidly segregated and starved of resources. In contrast to the idea of redistributing land, the idea that former slaves were entitled to an education equal to that available to whites persisted in Republic Party circles for more than a generation. Three times in the 1880s Republicans in the House of Representatives passed the Blair Bill, offering states millions of dollars in federal funds for public schools, proportionate to their illiteracy rates — in effect, offering federal resources to underwrite the education of southern freedpeople. Three times Senate Democrats refused to allow the bill to come to a vote.148

In no arena was the legacy of slavery more blatant than in education: in most southern states, it was a crime to teach a slave to read. “We have, as far as possible, closed every avenue by which light can enter,” a Virginia state legislator declared in 1832. “If we could extinguish the capacity to see light, our work would be completed; they would then be on a level with the beasts of the field, and we should be safe.”

The dream of an equal education for former slaves was finally extinguished in 1896, with the Supreme Court’s embrace of the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Of course, separate facilities were never equal. Over the next half century, white students in southern schools routinely received five to ten times more funding per capita than their Black peers. Curricula in Black schools were canted toward “practical” subjects like agriculture and domestic science, intended to prepare Black students for the menial positions awaiting them. In many areas, instruction was limited to the elementary grades, and even that was restricted to a few months per year to ensure that Black children’s labor was available during planting and harvesting seasons. At the time of the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which finally repudiated the doctrine of “separate but equal,” only about a third of African American children completed high school. In some southern states, the figure was less than ten percent. In sum, a medium that many in the 1860s had seen as the means to repair the legacy of slavery became a means of perpetuating that legacy for another century and beyond.149

African Americans and Higher Education: The Case of Brown University

Educational inequality was even greater at the tertiary level. The Reconstruction era saw the creation of the South’s first Black colleges, including Howard and Fisk, both founded in 1866. But the total number of students that these colleges could accommodate was initially very small — typically less than a hundred per year. The number of Black students in historically white universities was even smaller. One need look no further than the experience of Brown. Like many of its peer institutions, Brown did not admit Black students before the Civil War, at least not knowingly. In 1877, it produced its first two Black graduates, George Washington Milford and Inman Page. Over the next seventy years, from the end of Reconstruction through the end of World War II, Brown graduated about sixty more African Americans — a little less than one Black student per year. Many of these individuals, it should be noted, went on to lead careers of great distinction. Inman Page became a distinguished educator in the Oklahoma Territory, where his students included the novelist Ralph Ellison. John Hope, Class of 1894, became president of Atlanta University. (He also became the namesake of historian John Hope Franklin, one of the speakers hosted by the Steering Committee.) Fritz Pollard, Class of 1919, became the first African American coach in the National Football League. His classmate Rudolph Fisher was one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance, though at Brown he studied medicine. J. Saunders Redding, Class of 1928, became a distinguished author and scholar, a pioneer in the study of African American literature. In 1949, he spent a semester as a visiting professor at Brown, becoming the first Black member of the University’s faculty, before returning to his position at the historically Black Hampton Institute. At least half a dozen other graduates became university professors. Others became lawyers and doctors. Yet the number of Black students admitted to Brown did not increase beyond one or two a year until the 1950s.150

In 1877, Inman Page, portrayed here by Richard Yarde, and George Washington Milford became the first African Americans to graduate from Brown University.

The Brown University Portrait Collection.

The night school has been frequently disturbed. One evening a mob called out of the school house, the teacher, who upon presenting himself was confronted with four revolvers, and menacing expressions of shooting him, if he did not promise to quit the place, and close the school. The freedmen promptly came to his aid and the mob dispersed. About the 18th or 19th of the month … a formidable disturbance took place at the school. The same mob threatened to destroy the school that night, and the freedmen, learning this, assembled … at their place of instruction in a condition of self-defense.

— Captain C.M. Hamilton to the Office of the Adjutant General, 1866

Reparations Demands in the Age of Jim Crow

The dream of reparations for slavery did not end with Reconstruction: the late nineteenth century witnessed a variety of proposals. In the 1880s, Bishop Henry McNeil Turner, a Black political leader in Georgia during Reconstruction and later the chief apostle of the “back-to-Africa” movement, argued that African Americans were owed “forty billions of dollars for actual services rendered,” a figure based on two million people earning one hundred dollars per year for two hundred years. Turner offered to settle accounts for $100 million, the amount he calculated was necessary to transport all African Americans to Liberia. Little came of the proposal, though it did receive a backhanded endorsement from two of the U.S. Senate’s most notorious white supremacists, Matthew Butler of South Carolina and John Morgan of Alabama, who in 1890 facetiously introduced a bill to transport any African Americans unhappy in the South to the Congo.151

The year 1890 also saw the submission to the U.S. Congress of an “Ex-slave Pension and Bounty Bill.” Written by a white southerner concerned with the plight of aged former slaves, the bill never came up for discussion in Congress. But it did become the unlikely foundation of the first popular reparations movement, the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association, under the leadership of a Black seamstress named Callie House. House’s twenty-year campaign to get a slave pension bill onto the floor of Congress proved unavailing, but her efforts were sufficient to antagonize federal officials, who prosecuted her for mail fraud. Though the government produced no evidence of misconduct, she was convicted nonetheless on grounds that her activities were prima facie fraudulent, since there was no realistic chance that Congress would enact the proposed legislation.152

House’s efforts also laid the foundations of the first slave reparations lawsuit. In 1916, activists with ties to the ex-slave pension movement filed a suit in federal court, seeking some $68 million from the U.S. government, a sum based on the revenues the government had collected in taxes and duties on southern cotton in the last years of slavery. Like later reparations suits against the federal government, the case, Johnson v. McAdoo, was dismissed on procedural grounds, including the government’s sovereign immunity from suit.153

By the time Johnson v. McAdoo was filed, half a century had passed since emancipation, and a majority of former slaves had passed away. In decades to come, the balance would follow. One of the last recorded reparations claims by living survivors of slavery came in an appeal to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934, during the depths of the Great Depression. Was there “any way to consider the old slaves,” the authors asked, some way of “giving us pensions in payment for our long days of servitude?” The answer, as on previous occasions, was no, but the timing of the question is noteworthy. Just one year later, Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, creating the nation’s first federal system of old-age pensions. The act is rightly remembered as the most important piece of social welfare legislation in American history. Less frequently noted is the fact that the system was deliberately designed to exclude domestic and agricultural workers, the two largest Black employment categories, thus ensuring that neither “the old slaves” nor millions of their descendants were eligible to receive benefits.154

Race and the Making of the Welfare State

The exclusion of millions of African Americans from participation in the Social Security system was not mere happenstance. On the contrary, most of the signature programs of the New Deal — Social Security, industrial wage codes, agricultural subsidies — were crafted in ways that directed virtually all of the benefits to whites. Even governmental programs that were ostensibly colorblind often operated in racially discriminatory ways. Eligibility for Aid to Dependent Children, for example, the primary component of what we today call “welfare,” was determined by local administrative bodies, which routinely denied Black people benefits to which they were entitled, a pattern that continued into the 1960s. The same would later be true of the G.I. Bill, under the auspices of which millions of returning servicemen were able to attend college. Contrary to modern stereotypes about Blacks and welfare, the American welfare state was a crucial element in perpetuating the tradition of white entitlement and Black exclusion inherited from slavery and Jim Crow.155

Thus in the underground of our unwritten history, much of that which is ignored defies our inattention by continuing to grow and have consequences. . . . Perhaps if we learned more of what has happened and why it happened, we will learn more of who we really are, and perhaps if we learn more about our unwritten history, we won’t be so vulnerable to the capriciousness of events as we are today. . . . Such individuals as Dr. Page … worked, it seems to me, to such an end. Ultimately theirs was an act of faith: faith in themselves, faith in the potentialities of their own people, and despite their social status as Negroes, faith in the potentialities of the democratic ideal. Coming so soon after the betrayal of the Reconstruction, theirs was a heroic effort. It is my good fortune that their heroism became my heritage, and thanks to Inman Page and Brown University is it also now a part of the heritage of all Americans who would become conscious of who they are.

— Novelist Ralph Ellison, on his former teacher Inman Page, Brown Class of 1877, in Going to the Territory, 1986

Nowhere was racial discrimination more blatant or of greater long-term significance than in federal housing policy. Facing a record number of home foreclosures during the Depression, the U.S. government set out to transform the way in which Americans were housed. The cornerstones of this system were the Home Owners Loan Corporation (H.O.L.C.), established in 1933, and the Federal Housing Administration (F.H.A), founded a year later. These two agencies, later joined by the Veterans Administration, essentially offered federal guarantees of private mortgages, greatly reducing the costs, complexity, and risks of the existing system. The policy’s object was to make America a nation of homeowners, and it succeeded spectacularly. In the space of four decades, some thirty-five million American families capitalized on these federal programs to add home equity to their estates. One can scarcely overstate the significance of this development. In a nation in which upward of eighty percent of wealth is accumulated through intergenerational transfers, and in which home equity represents the single largest component of such transfers, the H.O.L.C. and F.H.A. dramatically enhanced the life chances of well over one hundred million Americans.156

Was there “any way to consider the old slaves,” the authors of the appeal asked the President, some way of “giving us pensions in payment for our long days of servitude?” The answer, as on previous occasions, was no, but the timing is noteworthy. One year later, Roosevelt signed legislation creating the Social Security system — a system from which agricultural and domestic workers, the two largest Black employment categories, were excluded.

Virtually all of those Americans were white. The F.H.A. and H.O.L.C. circulated color-coded maps to real estate agents and lenders, with Black and mixed-race neighborhoods marked in red. Such neighborhoods were automatically classified as economically unstable, making residents ineligible to receive federal mortgage guarantees to purchase or repair homes. At the same time, the F.H.A. refused to underwrite mortgages to “incompatible groups” — that is, to African Americans trying to move into white neighborhoods — on the grounds that mixing people of different “social and racial classes” led to “instability and a reduction in values.” The explicitly racial language was later stricken from F.H.A. manuals, but the policy persisted. A study by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People found that Black people had been excluded from access to ninety-eight percent of all F.H.A.-guaranteed mortgages between 1948 and 1961, precisely the period in which the American suburban system was created. Only with the 1968 Fair Housing Act, enacted as a tribute to the slain Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., did racial discrimination in mortgage provision become illegal. By that time the racial character of America’s cities and suburbs — and with it the racial character of the nation’s public school system — had become firmly entrenched.157

Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Revival of the Reparations Question

The 1968 Fair Housing Act, coming on the heels of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act, represented the last great legislative victory of the Civil Rights era. In law, if not yet in practice, African Americans had finally achieved the full American citizenship promised a century before. Yet 1968 was also a year of bitter disillusionment, marked by the murder of Dr. King, the eruption of ghetto revolts in more than a hundred American cities, and a growing awareness of the profound economic disparities that continued to divide Black and white Americans, notwithstanding the recent legislative gains. As King himself famously put it, “What good is it to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford a hamburger?” The modern slave reparations movement was a product of this historical moment.

The slave reparations movement that emerged in the late 1960s was distinguished from its predecessors in at least two important respects. Most obviously, it was a movement of descendants of slaves rather than of the formerly enslaved themselves, all but a handful of whom had died. It was also a movement profoundly shaped by the contemporary Black Power movement, with its emphasis on Black autonomy and economic empowerment and its deep skepticism about the value of integration. The most visible of the new reparations organizations was the Republic of New Africa, a Black nationalist organization founded in 1968 in Detroit, site of the bloodiest of the era’s ghetto revolts. Founded by two brothers, Gaida and Imari Obadele (née Milton and Richard Henry), the Republic of New Africa demanded $400 billion in “slavery damages” from the U.S. government, along with the cession of five southern states — Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina — as the territorial basis of a separate Black nation. (In the 1990s, Imari Obadele would reemerge as the president and founder of N’COBRA, the National Committee of Blacks for Reparations in America.)158

The Black Manifesto

Detroit was also the birthplace of the “Black Manifesto.” Drafted at the National Black Economic Development Conference, which met in the city in 1969, the manifesto was announced to the world a short time later when a group of civil rights movement veterans, led by James Forman, disrupted services at New York’s Riverside Church to present its demands. Addressing “the White Christian Churches and the Jewish Synagogues in the United States of America and All Other Racist Institutions,” the manifesto demanded $500 million “as the beginning of the reparations due us as people who have been exploited and degraded, brutalized, killed, and persecuted.” It went on to specify the uses to which the fund would be put, including the establishment of a southern land bank, the creation of Black publishing houses and television networks, a strike fund for Black workers, and the founding of a Black university. While authors of the Black Manifesto did not envision a separate Black nation, as leaders of the Republic of New Africa did, their proposals were clearly intended to enhance Black autonomy and self-determination.159

The Black Manifesto provoked a brief flurry of media comment, much of it condemning the disruptive tactics employed by Forman and his comrades. The substance of the appeal was largely ignored, or at best dismissed as hopelessly quixotic. “[T]here is neither wealth nor wisdom enough in the world to compensate in money for all the wrongs in history,” the New York Times editorialized. The manifesto generated more sustained discussion in academic circles, including among legal scholars. Probably the most authoritative examination of the issue was The Case for Black Reparations by Boris Bittker, the Sterling Professor of Law at Yale. By his own account, Bittker began his research as a skeptic, and he emerged convinced that the legal obstacles to slavery reparations claims were indeed all but insurmountable, particularly when cast in terms of individual payments. But he also concluded that a compelling case for collective reparations could be made for the injuries of Jim Crow, especially for the long denial of equal education. To “concentrate on slavery,” he wrote, “is to understate the case for compensation, so much so that one might almost suspect that the distant past is serving to suppress the ugly facts of the recent past and of contemporary life.” For better or worse, few reparations advocates have attended to Bittker’s observation.160

The slavery reparations movement that emerged in the late 1960s was distinguished from its predecessors in at least two important respects. Most obviously, it was a movement of descendants of slaves rather than of the formerly enslaved themselves, all but a handful of whom had died. It was also a movement profoundly shaped by the contemporary Black Power movement, with its emphasis on Black autonomy and economic empowerment.

The slavery reparations issue continued to bubble through the 1970s and ’80s, chiefly in Black nationalist circles. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the issue burst back into national prominence, attracting unprecedented interest and support. To some extent, this revival was a response to the proliferation of retrospective justice movements and claims in the United States and around the world. But it also reflected the specific circumstances of Black America, including widespread anger and frustration at the conservative turn in American politics. With ebbing support for civil rights legislation, federal courts increasingly unreceptive to racial discrimination claims, and affirmative action under political and legal assault, some African Americans concluded that reparations were the only means left to address the persistent racial inequalities plaguing American society. “Affirmative action for Black Americans as a form of remediation for perpetuation of past injustice is almost dead,” wrote legal scholar Robert Westley in an influential article. The time had come to “revitalize the discussion of reparations.”161

The 1988 Civil Liberties Act

African American interest in the reparations issue also received an enormous boost from the 1988 Civil Liberties Act, which granted a formal apology and monetary reparations of $20,000 to Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Given the salience of the Japanese American case in the reparations debate, it is worth briefly examining the act. Aside from a 1948 law providing token compensation to some internees for lost property, the internment was little discussed in the decades after the war. Former internees themselves often buried the experience, regarding it as a source of shame and embarrassment. The daughter of Fred Korematsu, an American citizen of Japanese descent who had taken a case to the Supreme Court in 1944 in a vain effort to stop the internment, learned about her father’s experience only after stumbling across a reference to the case in her high school history textbook. Her father had never mentioned it.162

After decades of silence, a broad redress movement emerged in the 1970s and ’80s. While surviving internees were well represented in the movement, much of the impetus came from younger Japanese Americans seeking acknowledgment of the injuries endured by their aging parents and grandparents. The movement drew strength from new research on the internment by scholars working in the emerging field of Asian American studies. Its influence was further enhanced by the presence in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives of individuals who had been directly touched by wartime events, including two who were interned and two who fought in the U.S. Army as members of a highly decorated Japanese American regiment. The movement achieved an early victory in 1976, when President Gerald Ford formally apologized for the government’s action, but organizers pressed for more. While some pursued reparations through class-action litigation (the case, Hohri v. United States, was eventually dismissed on statute-of-limitations and other procedural grounds), others followed the legislative route, securing the passage of a law appointing a national commission to investigate the history of the episode and to recommend appropriate remedies. The outcome of the process was the Civil Liberties Act, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.163

The Japanese American Case as a Precedent for Slavery Reparations

Whether the Civil Liberties Act represents a precedent for slavery reparations is questionable. Most obviously, the act paid reparations only to surviving internees, not to their descendants. The authors of the Civil Liberties Act were also careful to present the internment not as an injury to a particular group but as a constitutional violation that had injured the entire nation. This strategy was apparent not only in the act’s title, which made no mention of Japanese Americans, but also in the opening section, which described the bill as an effort to “discourage the occurrence of similar injustices and violations of civil liberties in the future; and make more credible and sincere any declaration of concern by the United States over violations of human rights committed by other nations.” Finally, the bill included a rider, attached by Senator Jesse Helms, explicitly “to preclude … this legislation from being used as a precedent in the courts or elsewhere to give precedent or standing to any future claims on the part of … any other citizen or group claiming to have been dealt an injustice by the American Government at some time in the past.” (Helms proposed another amendment, not adopted by his colleagues, withholding all payments until the government of Japan had compensated families of Americans killed at Pearl Harbor, a proposal that precisely recapitulated the racist logic of the original internment.)164

Whatever the relevance of the Civil Liberties Act to slavery redress, it was certainly embraced as a precedent by reparations advocates. If nothing else, the law showed that it was possible for the American nation to confront a historical injustice in a serious way, to apologize publicly for it, and to offer material amends. The act unleashed a torrent of articles in magazines and law reviews, reexamining slavery reparations claims in the context of the Japanese American case. Its influence was also manifest in H.R. 40, introduced by Congressman John Conyers in April 1989. Conyers’ bill called for the appointment of a nonpartisan commission “to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of those forces on living African Americans,” and to recommend remedies to Congress — a formulation almost identical to the language of the bill that established the internment commission. (Although Conyers has regularly reintroduced the bill, he has yet to muster the votes to move it from committee onto the floor of the House.)165

Seeking Reparations through Litigation

While the Civil Liberties Act and H.R. 40 exemplify the pursuit of reparations through the legislature, others pursued reparations through courts. Berry v. United States and Cato v. United States, filed in California in 1994 and 1995, respectively, both sought reparations for slavery from the federal government. The two cases based their claims on different legal theories. Berry referenced the promise of forty acres of land during Reconstruction, and sought forty acres in compensatory damages. (The acreage specified in the suit included most of downtown San Francisco.) Cato sought monetary damages for the crime of slavery itself, including “kidnapping of ancestors from Africa” and “forced ancestral indoctrination into a foreign society.” In the end, neither theory was tested. Both cases were dismissed on procedural grounds, including the sovereign immunity of the federal government from lawsuits, the failure of plaintiffs to establish legally actionable harms, and the political questions doctrine.166

A second batch of reparations cases was filed in the early 2000s, targeting not the federal government but corporations alleged to have profited from slavery, the slave trade, and slave-related industries. The cases were clearly inspired by recent settlements in class-action suits brought by Holocaust victims and their descendants against Swiss banks and German corporations complicit in Nazi forced-labor practices; indeed, some of the lawyers who filed slavery cases had previously worked on Holocaust claims. In March 2002, Deadria Farmer-Paellman, a longtime reparations activist, and Edwin Fagan, one of the lead attorneys in the German forced-labor litigation, filed suit in federal court in Brooklyn against Fleet-Boston Bank, railroad giant CSX, Aetna Insurance, and up to one thousand “Corporate [John] Does” to be named later. Though the suit specified no damages, Farmer-Paellman and Fagan publicly mentioned the figure of $1.4 trillion, their calculation of the current value of the forty-acre plots denied to freedpeople after the Civil War.167

Senator Helms proposed another amendment to the Civil Liberties Act, withholding all reparations payments to former internees until the government of Japan had compensated families of Americans killed at Pearl Harbor. The proposal, which precisely recapitulated the racist logic of the original internment, was not adopted.

Several other suits followed. Consolidated into a single case, “in re: African-American Slave Descendants Litigation,” the cases were argued in the Northern District of Illinois in 2004. The result was a thoroughgoing defeat for reparations advocates. The plaintiffs, the presiding judge ruled, had failed to clear the procedural hurdles necessary for the court even to consider the merits of the case. The judge identified three main deficiencies in the filing, including lack of standing (the plaintiffs’ failure to establish a direct line of descent between themselves and a specific injured party), the expiration of statutes of limitations in all jurisdictions, and the political question doctrine. The plaintiffs were given leave to file an amended complaint, but it too was dismissed on the same grounds. In 2005, the case was resubmitted with additional arguments and materials (including DNA evidence establishing a genetic link between African Americans today and Africans transported to the Americas on slave ships) but this case too was dismissed. Although an appeal of this last dismissal is pending, the idea of securing reparations for slavery through litigation against private companies appears to have come to a dead end, at least for the time being.168

Municipal Disclosure Ordinances

Even as these suits wound their way through the federal courts, a new front was being opened. In October 2002, the Board of Aldermen of the city of Chicago unanimously adopted the nation’s first “Slave-Era Disclosure Ordinance,” requiring companies with city contracts to examine their historical records, including records of predecessor companies, and to disclose profits derived from slavery. Under terms of the ordinance, companies found to have ties to slavery suffer no penalties; sanctions are reserved for companies that fail to disclose such ties. Los Angeles adopted a similar ordinance in May 2003. Detroit followed a month later. With the failure of litigation, the reparations movement appears to have redirected its energies toward this front, and there are now more than a dozen major cities with ordinances in place or in prospect.169

Thus far, the impact of the new disclosure ordinances has been borne by large American banks, which tend to have many predecessor companies, as well as many municipal contracts. In December 2004, J.P. Morgan Chase, the nation’s second-largest bank, submitted an amended disclosure statement to the city of Chicago, revealing that two of its predecessor banks in Louisiana had accepted some thirteen thousand enslaved African Americans as collateral for loans. Through defaults, the banks eventually owned — and, in turn, sold — about ten percent of these people. The disclosure was accompanied by a public letter of apology from the bank’s president, as well as the announcement of a $5-million scholarship fund for African American students from Louisiana. Wachovia, the nation’s fourth-largest bank, made a similar disclosure in June 2005. Thus far only one institution appears to have been disqualified from a city contract. In October 2005, Lehman Brothers of New York was removed as co-underwriter of a $1.5-billion bond issue for Chicago’s O’Hare Airport after failing to submit an amended disclosure statement, an action that reportedly cost the firm $500,000.170

Disclosures by Private Institutions

Recent years have also seen a series of voluntary disclosures by private institutions. Churches have played the leading role, with denominations ranging from the Southern Baptist Convention to the Church of England adopting resolutions acknowledging and expressing contrition for their historical ties to slavery and the slave trade. The most recent institution to act is the Episcopal Church, which adopted a resolution in June 2006 expressing “profound regret” for its complicity in slavery, as well as its for its long silence about racial discrimination in the era of Jim Crow. In addition to the apology, the church announced a three-year self-study of its relationship to slavery and the slave trade, to be accompanied by a sustained process of dialogue and reflection on possible remedies. The expressed goal of the exercise is to try to “repair the breach” that slavery carved in the life of the church and the nation.171

In December 2004, J.P. Morgan Chase, the nation’s second-largest bank, submitted an amended disclosure statement to the city of Chicago, revealing that two of its predecessor banks in Louisiana had accepted some thirteen thousand enslaved African Americans as collateral for loans. The disclosure was accompanied by a public letter of apology from the bank’s president, as well as the announcement of a $5-million scholarship fund for African American students from Louisiana.

If the Episcopal Church’s efforts reflect its identity as a religious institution, the action of the Hartford Courant, the nation’s oldest continuously published newspaper, bespeaks its institutional identity. In searching the paper’s archives for background on reparations claims against Aetna, a local insurance company, Courant reporters uncovered an entire forgotten history of slavery and slave trading in Connecticut. This history embraced the newspaper itself, which routinely ran paid advertisements for runaway slaves and upcoming slave auctions. On July 4, 2000, the paper published a front-page editorial, “A Courant Complicity, an Old Wrong,” apologizing for “any involvement by our predecessors at the Courant in the terrible practice of buying and selling human beings.” The paper went on to produce a special edition focusing on Connecticut and slavery, entitled “Complicity.” The edition, later published in expanded form as a book, has been distributed to schools across the state.172

Universities have also been important sites of historical discovery and dialogue. While the venture at Brown has generated the most national attention, other institutions have also confronted their historical ties to slavery. In 2004, the Faculty Senate of the University of Alabama adopted a resolution apologizing for the faculty’s complicity in slavery in the years before the Civil War. The apology focused on previous faculty members’ role in whipping slaves on campus, a responsibility formally assigned to the faculty by the Board of Trustees in the 1840s to forestall students whipping their personal slaves excessively. In 2005, the University of North Carolina unveiled a public memorial, Unsung Founders, honoring the people of color, enslaved and free, who had helped to build the university. At the same time, Emory University announced a “Transforming Community Project,” a five-year program of activities and workshops designed to facilitate dialogue on the university’s historical relationship to slavery and Jim Crow, as well as on the current politics of race on the campus.173

Racial Inequality in the Twenty-First Century

Time will tell whether recent initiatives by churches, newspapers, and universities represent isolated gestures or the beginning of a broad national discussion about slavery and its legacies. What is certain is that there is much still to discuss. While the nature and sources of racial inequality today are fiercely debated, there is no question that we live in a society characterized by dramatic racial disparities. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, more than one in five African Americans — and nearly one in three African American children — lives below the federal poverty line. Recorded in the midst of a booming economy, these figures are the lowest in U.S. history, yet they are still more than three times the comparable figures for non-Hispanic whites. Median white family income is about fifty percent higher than the median Black income; the gulf in wealth, a measure of assets accumulated over generations, is vastly greater. Average Black life expectancy is six years less than for white Americans, while the Black infant mortality rate is twice as high. African Americans are far more likely than their white peers to be ill-housed and ill-educated, and to lack essential medical care. Racial disparities are perhaps most dramatic in rates of incarceration, with African Americans, and Black males in particular, about seven times more likely than whites (and three times more likely than Latinos) to be lodged in state or federal prison.174

The persistence of racial inequality in America today was thrown into sharp relief by Hurricane Katrina, one of the signal events of the Steering Committee’s three-year tenure. Had the Committee wished to contrive an event to illustrate the continuing relevance of our nation’s racial history it could scarcely have done better than Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast in September 2005. As President George W. Bush noted in a national address from the devastated city of New Orleans, the hurricane and ensuing flood exposed the reality of “deep, persistent poverty” in the United States, poverty with “roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.” Equally important, Katrina exposed a vast gulf in the way in which different Americans see their worlds. Whatever one thinks of the merits of the various arguments, the angry allegations hurled in the aftermath of the storm — accusations of government indifference and betrayal, the attempt to shift responsibility for the suffering onto victims themselves, charges and countercharges of misrepresentation and media bias — clearly bespoke a nation that remains deeply conflicted about the meaning of its past.

The problems exposed by Katrina take us back once more to the challenge of retrospective justice. How does a society “repair” such deeply rooted economic, political, and psychological divisions? Is the discourse of reparations, with its emphasis on “healing injuries” and remedying past injustice, a useful medium for thinking about our responsibilities in the present? Are exercises in retrospective justice inherently divisive and backward looking, as some critics have alleged, or can they provide a way to nurture common citizenship and awaken new visions of the future? How might such programs work in practice? These are just some of the questions that might be taken up in a continuing national dialogue about slavery and justice. It is our hope that this Report, in providing information about the history of our University and our nation, as well as about the efforts of other institutions and societies to confront legacies of historical injustice, may enable Americans of all persuasions to discuss such questions more openly and thoughtfully.