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John W. MillerJune 18, 2021
Photo: America/iStockPhoto: America/iStock

Editor's Note: The Moral Economy is a new series that tackles key economic topics through the prism of Catholic social teaching and its care for the dignity of every person. This is the sixth article in the series.

In the years after the Civil War, it was obvious to many U.S. leaders that the people their nation had enslaved for 246 years deserved compensation. Then the idea, it seemed, vanished.

In 2021, that moral clarity is being invoked by a new generation of activists leading local, regional and private initiatives that aim to repair the systemic damage done by slavery. In the last year, since the murder of George Floyd refocused this nation’s attention on Black lives, these smaller-scale efforts have overtaken the more familiar call for the federal government to allocate federal reparations to African Americans.

Together, these two currents, local and national, have elevated the conversation about reparations for slavery to a place it has not occupied since the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s.

On Thursday, President Biden signed a law making Juneteenth, a celebration of the end of slavery, a national holiday. “Great nations don’t ignore the most painful moments,” he said. 

In the last year, small-scale efforts have overtaken the more familiar call for the federal government to allocate federal reparations to African Americans.

“I never thought that in my lifetime, we would be having a broad conversation about reparations,” the Rev. Dr. Joe Thompson, a pastor and professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, told me. Dr. Thompson, who is African American, is in charge of a $1.7 million fund the seminary has created to atone for its past involvement in enslaving people and the segregation and discrimination that followed. The seminary is sending cash payments—$2,100 this year—to descendants of people whom it exploited for forced labor, as well as people who worked at the institution during segregation.

Some Black activists and scholars object to the increasingly popular local and private projects. They say they are merely symbolic and a distraction from the broader campaign. “A national problem deserves a national solution,” William Darity, an economist at Duke University, told me.

But others say these smaller initiatives are worth encouraging and studying. They are, after all, the only reparations being paid right now. They also correlate with a rising level of overall support among Americans for a federal plan, though that support still seems to be less than a majority. And, most important, they are a powerful testimony that reminds us of the truth about this nation’s crime against humanity. Look at slavery up close, all these stories say, and you see an economic misdeed that unquestionably demands economic justice.

The human connection

It is the direct human connection that motivates activists. In 2019, Sarah Eisner, a former California technology executive turned writer and activist, connected online with Randy Quarterman, the descendant of one of the men her great-great-great grandfather had enslaved near Savannah, Ga.

Her outreach was welcomed. “It was a little confusing at first, but Sarah’s work has educated us about family history,” Mr. Quarterman told me. “And there’s been truth-telling on both sides. That’s the real reparations, and that’s significant, especially because it looks like federal reparations might not happen.” Among other efforts, Ms. Eisner helped organize a legal team to protect land Mr. Quarterman’s family owns. They have also created the Reparations Project, a nonprofit group that organizes lectures, pays reparations to African American families, and fights to prevent Black land loss. Ms. Eisner says she is lucky Mr. Quaterman “was willing to grow a relationship with me, which has helped me work toward a small attempt at repairing the past and further opened my heart.”

“From a Catholic point of view, there’s no question that reparations make sense. There’s so much throughout Catholic history that talks about repairing injustice.”

Ms. Eisner and Mr. Quarterman are not alone in forging a reparative relationship. Over the last three years, since I first wrote about the private reparations movement for America in 2018, during a boom in online genealogy, there has been a mushrooming of such efforts.

These include California’s creation of a task force to study the possibility of paying reparations, a move the State of New York voted this month to emulate. The city of Asheville, N.C., has launched a reparations fund with money from a land sale. Evanston, Ill., is paying home repair and improvement grants to African American citizens. And this month, the Tulsa, Okla., city council voted to apologize and make “tangible amends” for the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, when a white mob torched 35 blocks of a wealthy neighborhood known as Black Wall Street.

Religious groups have joined the cause. The Society of Jesus has pledged $100 million to descendants of people enslaved by Georgetown University. “We will restore honor and dignity to our ancestors by institutionalizing these goals for our children, our children’s children, and descendants for centuries to come,” said Cheryllyn Branch, president of the GU272 Descendants Association, named after the 272 enslaved people Georgetown sold in 1838. The foundation represents over 10,000 people. Princeton Theological Seminary has promised $27.6 million for scholarships, the hiring of Black scholars, and the financing of doctoral studies for descendants of enslaved people.

Theologians say reparations accord with Catholic social teaching, which emphasizes the dignity of every human being. “From a Catholic point of view, there’s no question that reparations make sense,” said the theologian and writer John Slattery. “There’s so much throughout Catholic history that talks about repairing injustice.”

A step forward

As the smaller reparations schemes have proliferated, a U.S. House committee took a major step forward in April by approving H.R. 40, which would create a commission to study the granting of national reparations. A positive resolution appears unlikely, mostly because Americans who support reparations are still in the minority, although that number seemed to increase last year: 31 percent of Americans backed reparations in a July 2020 poll, up from 19 percent in 1999.

The issue is still broadly opposed by Republicans. “Slavery was and still is an evil,” said Rep. Burgess Owens, a Black Republican congressman from Utah, during House debate. Mr. Owens said that the idea of reparations is “divisive” and added, “It speaks to the fact that we are a hapless, hopeless race that never did anything but wait for White people to show up and help us, and it’s a falsehood.”

During the 2020 presidential campaign, Joe Biden said he would back a study of reparations. Vice President Kamala Harris, as a candidate for president in 2019, proposed paying for mental and physical health treatment for African Americans. The “centuries of slavery” were “a form of violence where women were raped, where children were taken from their parents—violence associated with slavery,” she told NPR. “And that never—there was never any real intervention to break up what had been generations of people experiencing the highest forms of trauma, and trauma, undiagnosed and untreated, leads to physiological outcomes.”

The average white family has around 10 times the amount of cumulative wealth as the average Black family.

Scholars have shown the connection between slavery and current inequalities. Counties in the United States with higher rates of slavery have higher current rates of income inequality. The average white family has around 10 times the amount of cumulative wealth as the average Black family. Even Black college graduates have only one-seventh the wealth of white college graduates.

But slavery can seem abstract. Like the Holocaust, it is a crime that appears fantastical unless you spend time with its realities: forced poverty, separatied families, unpunished rape and murder. How else to explain the silence of moral leaders other than that they were too distant from, and thus were not looking at, the crime being committed? It was not until 1839 that a pope, Gregory XVI, formally condemned modern slavery.

In contrast to backers of smaller-scale initiatives, supporters of a national reparations plan say it is the only way to redeem a nation stricken with historical amnesia that has struggled to confront its guilt the way Nazi Germany has done for the Holocaust and South Africa for apartheid.

Moral clarity 

The case against local reparations is that they are insufficient. Mr. Darity, the Duke University economist, argues that only the federal government can afford the bill that needs to be paid. He has calculated that the value of reparations required is over $11 trillion, derived from the amount of wealth the Black population should possess given its share of the U.S. population. The annual budgets of all U.S. states and municipalities combined amount to around $3 trillion, Mr. Darity estimates, and if they spent all that money on reparations, forgoing all other obligations, it would take them four years to reach $11 trillion, “and even if you relied on private donations and generous donors who put a billion dollars a month into a reparations fund, it would take us nine centuries to get to eleven trillion,” he added.

Activists in the private reparations movement say they support H.R. 40 or some other national form of redress, but they emphasize the role their work can play in highlighting the truth about slavery. Private reparations “are a way of creating a truthful society and healing wounds from our past,” said Tom DeWolf, co-founder of an organization called Coming to the Table. The organization now has over three dozen affiliate groups who meet to discuss racial healing and help people who wish to repair damage caused by slavery. “The trauma is always present,” said Mr. DeWolf, who is a descendant of a family in Rhode Island that enslaved people.

People need to be reminded of that moment of moral clarity when slavery was ending and we could see it up close.

And private and local reparations can be seen as complementary to a national scheme. Kathleen Grimes, a professor of theology at Villanova University, points out that there are cases, like Georgetown, where “it is possible to identify a specific harm done by and benefiting a specific institution” in a way that “contributed to the more general and diffuse harm of anti-Blackness.” In those cases, it would make sense to keep the response “isolated and focused,” she said.

What everybody involved in the conversation about reparations agrees upon is that people need to be reminded of that moment of moral clarity when slavery was ending and we could see it up close.

As the Civil War concluded, the Republican Party under President Abraham Lincoln debated how African Americans might participate in society. Ideas ranged from a wage labor system to wholescale land redistribution. The notion of compensating freed people was familiar: Since slavery was instituted, many Americans, particularly Quakers in the 18th century, had made a practice of giving land or money to people who had once been enslaved.

“The aftermath of the George Floyd murder has a lot of white people coming out of their bubbles.”

Marching through the South in 1865, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued his Field Order 15, which set aside 400,000 acres, up to 40 acres per plot, for a population of 40,000 formerly enslaved people, many of whom were following his army around the South. (The acreage provided the name for the bill now under consideration in Congress. Sherman also came up with the idea of giving African Americans surplus mules.)

“Sherman was facing a massive humanitarian and refugee crisis,” Barton Myers, a professor of history at Washington and Lee University told me. “He was looking for a practical solution.” Sherman was no progressive, but he recognized that the aftermath of slavery demanded a constructive response. After Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, President Andrew Johnson—“one of the most viciously racist presidents,” in the words of Dr. Myers—cancelled plans for restorative justice.

A sea change in people’s attitudes

When I talked to reparations activists recently, many brought up Sherman and the spirit of the 1860s and 1870s, which they said has been brought back to life by the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There’s been a sea change in people’s attitudes,” said Lotte Lieb Dula. “The aftermath of the George Floyd murder has a lot of white people coming out of their bubbles.”

In 2018, Ms. Dula was unpacking family heirlooms and found a logbook from a plantation in Mississippi. It included lists of property and equipment, and a list of the names and values of people her family had enslaved. She was “dumbfounded,” she said. “I knew our family was from the South and that my great-grandfather had fought during the Civil War, but no one had ever mentioned a connection to slavery.” She started Reparations 4 Slavery, a website that provides information for white families who want to contribute to reparations and collects their stories and other writings.

Conversations among people who are serious about reparations are helpful, scholars say, because they are defining what broader reparations might look like.

“We need to talk more about what a federal scheme might look like,” said Guy Emerson Mount, a professor of history at Auburn University. “It should be driven by local demands, not from the top down, and I’m worried we’ll end up with something that mirrors the type of capitalism that enabled slavery in the first place,” he said. “The African-American experience is more communal, and reparations should mirror that.” For example, he said, community land trusts and worker-owned cooperatives would be preferable to cash, or 401(k)-type investment plans. Black communities should be allowed to decide “collectively and democratically what form the repair should take,” he said.

Whatever its form, every reparations plan is, at heart, an economic solution, because the problem of slavery was economic. In 1840, over half of total U.S. exports consisted of cotton harvested by enslaved people. In a prosperous land, four million people had by law owned nothing, and after the Civil War deserved something. A nation lost its vision of that fact to the restoration of white power in the South, the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Black Jim Crow laws and an imposed nostalgia for the plantation glamour of the Old South.

Racism became institutionalized, stunting efforts to fix the obvious economic problem slavery had created. And the reality of slavery was obscured. “The U.S. never had a truth and reconciliation commission,” said Dr. Mount.

The importance of speaking the truth about what happened is one thing that all sides of the reparations debate can agree on.

More reporting from John W. Miller:

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