UPDATED: 8:30 a.m. ET, April 1, 2022 —
Every so often, Black people spark up the conversation about reparations because, well it’s something we deserve, and it’s something we were promised. The concept of reparations is not a new idea by any stretch of the imagination, but its meaning has taken different forms over the years.
On March 30, California’s reparations task force, which was established back in 2020, voted to make state compensation eligible to Black Californias who are descendants of slaves in the U.S. According to Call Matters, Tuesday’s big vote established that Black Californians “who can trace their lineage back to enslaved ancestors will be eligible for the state’s reparations.
For Black people, reparations mean more than just a money handout. It’s about an acknowledgment of what we truly mean to this country. America was built on our blood, sweat, and tears. Some of the richest families in America got that way because of free labor. Reparations in America have quite a few precedents, so why is the conversation so divided when Black people ask for what they deserve?
To further advance this conversation about reparations, we will dive into what the word means, its origin, and its history. Even though communities in America have received reparations in the past, the concept still seems to warrant many questions.
Reparations are defined in the Oxford dictionary as, “the making of amends for a wrong one has done, by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.”
Throughout history, the word has also been used to describe the compensation for war damage paid by the defeated state.
Let’s take a look at how these two definitions are associated with events throughout history.
40 Acres And A Mule
As the American Civil War began to turn in the favor of the Northern Army, Congress passed the Confiscation Act of 1861. The law allowed the military to seize rebel property, including land as well as slaves.
January 16, 1865, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman proclaimed that land his army confiscated be allotted to freed Black families.
The plots allotted were to be no larger than 40 acres each. He would later order his army to give mules to the families to help the agrarian reform effort. Sherman’s decision came after he and the Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton meet with 20 leaders of the Black community in Savannah, GA, many of which had been slaves for the majority of their lives.
What was called Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15, the proclamation allocated land from Charleston, SC to St. John’s River, Florida. By June 1865, 40,000 freed Blacks settled on 435,000 acres. What was known as The Sea Islands project, was the beginning basis for the “40 acres and a mule” concept. It also laid the foundation for post-slavery economics during the period. Sherman’s Special Field Orders, No. 15 was approved by President Lincoln just four days after Sherman’s meeting with Black leaders in Savannah.
After the assassination of Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, a Confederate sympathizer would become President. Johnson would overturn Sherman’s Order in the fall of 1865 and return the land to the white confederates; the same men who declared war on the United States and lost.
That same year Johnson offered pardons to all white Southerners, with a few exceptions. Black people were denied any role in the reconstruction process and the land that was once promised to them was stripped from them. Confederates had lost the war, but in only a few short months would return to power and continue to torment Black people.
The next time reparations played a part in history was during World War I. The word was used to describe a levy on a defeated country, forcing them to pay war costs to the winning country. After the war had ended Allies levied reparations on Germany, Italy, Japan, and Finland. The Federal Republic of Germany also had to pay reparations to the State of Israel for crimes committed to the Jewish people on land controlled by the Third Reich. Germany was required to pay 132 billion gold marks ($33 billion) to cover damage to civilian life during the war.
The United States also has a history of giving reparations to people the government has wronged. During the 1900s, Native American tribes received reparations for the destruction of six indigenous communities. The Ottawas of Michigan, the Chippewas of Wisconsin, the Seminoles of Florida, the Sioux of South Dakota, the Klamaths of Oregon, and the Alaska Natives all received some form of reparations from America.
On July 2, 1948, The Japanese American Evacuation Claims Act provided reparations to Japanese American citizens who were removed from the West Coast during World War II and put into internment camps. The Justice Department set a $100,000,000 limit on the total claims. Over $36,974,240 was awarded.
The precedent for reparations is there and Black people know this.
Reparations Movements Today
Reparations movements are once again beginning to pop up in a few cities around the country.
The city of Evanston, Illinois, became a symbol of hope for being one of the first cities to ensure the federal government disseminates reparations to the descendants of slavery. The reparations rollout included several phases, the first of which would provide $25,000 to Black residents who were victims of housing discrimination. The funds would be allocated towards home improvement costs, down payments, closing cost assistance, and mortgage payments. But right-wing pushback has slowed the process tremendously.
In Asheville, NC, the reparations conversation has finally moved from just words to real action. The city has created a Community Reparations Commission which will help the city make reparations for some of its Black residents a reality. The commission plans to work with the community to pinpoint what the compensation will look like.
California has also established a commission dedicated to reparations for Blacks. The Reparations Task Force was created to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans, with special consideration for Blacks who are descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. The nine-member task force, which was appointed by the Governor, will be tasked with representing the interests of communities of color throughout the state.
But everyone isn’t down for Black people receiving reparations.
According to a poll at UMass Amherst, nearly half of Americans say the Federal Government should not pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. Most Americans who don’t agree with reparations are white, which is ironic because White Americans have gained the most from slavery.
Understandably, If you see people around you getting “free money,” it might make you feel some type of way. Especially, if it’s from events that happened long before you were born. But the idea is bigger than a handout and to understand that you are going to have to start with empathy.
Someone had empathy when they awarded the Native Americans reparations.
Someone had empathy when they awarded the Japanese reparations.
Now, where is the empathy for the Black people? Because without us, America would most certainly look very different.
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