A few years ago, Cheryl Benedict, an education administrator and historian from Virginia and my first cousin, discovered on Ancestry.com that our great-great-great-grandfather, a Texas farmer named Augustus Foscue, had owned 41 slaves.
I was saddened, not surprised. Although I grew up in Brussels, the child of American musicians who did not inherit great wealth, my family is white and middle class, with branches rooted among the pre-revolutionary English immigrants who accepted slave-holding as a way of life.
My first thought was that I should research our family history more—and then write about it. My ancestors had done something wrong. It had not been known. Now it was. Shining a light on the truth, followed by some sort of atonement, seemed the right thing to do, especially at a time of rising and relegitimized white supremacy in the United States. Truth-telling as atonement.
It would also be an education. Growing up, I attended Belgium’s écoles communales. In school, I did not learn about U.S. history. For me, as a kid, America was more cultural and commercial than political or historical: baseball and Mark Twain, musicals and McDonald’s.
My mistake, typical of white Americans, was treating slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past.
My attitude was naïve and ill-considered. As editors rejected draft after draft, it became clear that I was getting something important wrong.
My mistake, typical of white Americans, was treating slavery as if it were a mystery buried in the past. I had not known about my ancestor Augustus. My family had not talked about slavery. Now we did.
But confession is not atonement. And as one African-American historian or economist after another pointed out to me, slavery is not a mystery, and it is not past. What white Americans treat as a historical curiosity—something to investigate if we choose to—is to black Americans a cruel, unavoidable ghost that haunts this nation’s cities, schools, hospitals and prisons.
There is a small but growing group of descendants of slave-owners conducting private efforts at atonement.
This lack of understanding about slavery’s immanence is why white acts of private atonement are considered “conscience salves that do little to close the black-white gap,” William Darity, an economist at Duke University, told me. He calls symbolic actions “laissez-faire reparations” and argues that people who discover they have slave-owning ancestors are morally obliged to campaign for national reparations.
Because slavery was a societal institution, enshrined in the Constitution, and had societal consequences that have not been fixed, its reparation must be societal.
Still, with the internet revolution unveiling more family histories and efforts at a federal reparations movement stalled, there is a small but growing group of descendants of slave-owners conducting private efforts at atonement.
People I talked to are funding scholarships for black youths, putting up plaques in honor of people their families enslaved and engaging in dialogue aimed at promoting racial healing. They are writing books and making movies and documenting how the devastating inequalities set up by slavery were maintained during Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow laws and the post-civil rights era. Universities, banks and other institutions are owning up to their past involvement with slavery.
People I talked to are funding scholarships for black youths, putting up plaques in honor of people their families enslaved and engaging in dialogue aimed at promoting racial healing.
What to make of their efforts? Are they really useless? Isn’t something better than nothing? Do good intentions count for anything?
Guy Mount Emerson, an African-American historian who is part of the scholarly team that recently uncovered the University of Chicago’s historical ties to slavery, says that “symbolic action, even if it’s symbolic, may have the potential to heal current relationships.”
But Mr. Emerson, who has lectured on reparations at the University of Chicago, says that according to reparations theory, it is up to the people who were harmed to determine what might constitute sufficient restorative action. “It’s up to black folks to say when this is enough,” says Mr. Emerson. “It’s a very hard question: How do you forgive the unforgivable? How do you repair the irreparable?”
Under President Trump, white interest in private reparation efforts has been on the rise, says Tom DeWolf, a director at Coming to the Table, a non-profit based at Eastern Mennonite University that brings together the descendants of slave-owners and enslaved people. Since the 2016 election, the number of monthly visitors to the organization’s website has increased from 3,000 a month to over 13,000. The number of affiliated working groups has multiplied. They aim to inject more awareness into the public space about links between slavery and current inequalities.
This year, Coming to the Table released a 21-page guide on how to atone privately for slavery. It has over 100 suggestions, including donating to the United Negro College Fund, hiring African-American lawyers and doctors and contributing family archives to genealogy websites like Our Black Ancestry and AfriGeneas. African-American genealogies are often incomplete because enslaved peoples generally were not named in census documents until 1870.
“We suggest that before acting, European Americans should take their cues from African Americans as to when and how to approach and implement reparations,” the guide suggests. “African Americans may wish to engage in some of these activities so as to ensure that trust, healing and true reparations of the harms are achieved.”
The reparations guide also recommends supporting H.R. 40, a bill for which former Representative John Conyers Jr., Democrat of Michigan, campaigned since the 1980s. The bill, named after the 40 acres of land that newly emancipated African-Americans were promised and never given after the Civil War, would establish a commission to study the impact of slavery and suggest remedies.
Mr. DeWolf, who has written two books on the subject, is a descendant of a Rhode Island family that once controlled one of the country’s biggest slave-trading enterprises. Since the DeWolfs shipped 10,000 people from West Africa, they shaped the ancestries of as many as 500,000 African-Americans. In 2008, a DeWolf family member named Katrina Browne released “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” a riveting documentary that highlights slavery in Northern states and chronicles members of the family traveling to New England, Ghana and Cuba and their anguished debates over privilege, legacy and reparations.
“We suggest that before acting, European Americans should take their cues from African Americans as to when and how to approach and implement reparations.”
“White people should think of reparations as a poker game where somebody has been cheating,” says Ms. Browne. “If somebody said I’ve been cheating the whole game and now I’m going to stop cheating, wouldn’t you want your money back?”
Whether your family owned slaves is “a question that anybody with Southern roots should probably ask themselves,” says Christa Cowan, who has researched slavery for Ancestry.com. The 1850 and 1860 censuses, available online, are valuable because they include so-called “Slave Schedules” that list the numbers, genders and ages of enslaved people. “Even if your family wasn’t wealthy, it’s worth checking,” says Ms. Cowan, who is white and discovered her own slave-owning ancestry and black cousins through census records. It is also a question for Americans from Northern states: In the 17th and 18th centuries, millions of Northerners owned slaves.
To be sure, even if the truth is available, many white Americans still do not like to confront slavery—and, when they do, they do not feel guilty about it. “Everybody likes to talk about how their ancestors fought in the Confederacy, but nobody likes to talk about how they owned slaves,” Bruce Levine, the author of The Fall of the House of Dixie, a history of the 19th-century South, tells me. “You can’t have one without the other.” A survey in 2016 by political scientists found that 72.4 percent of white Americans questioned felt “not guilty at all” about “the privileges and benefits” they “received as white Americans.”
Growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s, Phoebe Kilby never heard about her slave-owning ancestors. A decade ago, she found documents online that proved that her family had owned enslaved peoples. Further research led her to meeting several descendants of people her family had owned as slaves, including people to whom she was genetically related. She has befriended her black relatives, helped obtain funding for a Virginia State historical highway sign that honors civil rights activists in the family and endowed scholarships for their grandchildren. “We could wait for Congress, or we can listen to the expressed desires of our African-American cousins and respond directly ourselves,” she says.
The African-American writer Betty Kilby, one of Phoebe’s relatives and a plaintiff in a school desegregation case in Virginia in the 1950s, says she had “mixed emotions” when Phoebe contacted her, “but I had promised to fight against hate, so I had to meet her.” They are now close friends and speak together at churches, colleges and community groups. Ms. Kilby says she supports national economic reparations and says private initiatives could offer a template for a wider political initiative. “What Phoebe has done is provide scholarships for the descendants of the people her family enslaved, that is restitution,” she says. “Maybe that’s the model nationally.”
Some black thinkers say symbolic gestures are meaningless if not accompanied by a demand for political and economic reparations.
“It’s not a matter of personal guilt, it’s a matter of national responsibility,” says Mr. Darity, the Duke University economist. The persistent structural inequality in the United States is why even white Americans not descended from slave-owners should support reparations, because they have benefitted, says Mr. Darity. Reparations, he says, “should go to anybody who has an ancestor who was enslaved and anybody who has identified as black for 10 years or more.”
A growing body of academic research has firmed up the links between slavery and current inequalities. A lot of racism in the United States “developed after slavery,” says Sven Beckert, the author of Empire of Cotton: A Global History and a professor at Harvard. African-Americans “were free, but they faced harsh discrimination in labor, property and education markets, among other things.” Mr. Beckert compares the slow and still unfilled reckoning of American whites with slavery to that of Germany’s resolution of its guilt over Nazism after World War II.
The difference, says Mr. Darity, is that “the U.S. is not a defeated nation in the aftermath of a great war seeking to restore its legitimacy in the international community.”
In a recent paper, “Slavery, Education, and Inequality,” two European academics, Graziella Bertocchi and Arcangelo Dimico, studied the influence of slavery across U.S. counties.
They found that counties that once had rates of high slave ownership are not always poorer, but that they consistently had unequal rates of educational attainment. Current inequality, they wrote, “is primarily influenced by slavery through the unequal education attainment of blacks and whites.”
Over time, Ms. Bertocchi tells me, “even after accounting for many other factors, slavery remains a persistent determinant of today’s inequality. ”
There is no mystery: Our wrong is present.
Clarification, Nov, 30: This article updated to note that John Conyers is a former congressman.