Beyond 40 Acres and a Mule

Historians consider their role in reparations debate -- and why debate won't go away.
April 21, 2006

Scholars who gathered Thursday to discuss the idea of reparations to African Americans are under no illusion that such payments are about to happen. Even those who were most sympathetic to the idea acknowledged that there was no political will in the United States to make such payments.

But the reason members of the Organization of American Historians held an open forum on reparations as part of the group's annual meeting is that many scholars consider this an issue that won't go away -- and that poses particular challenges to their discipline. So many delicate issues in history and public policy -- defining who is black, defining who should feel either guilt or complicity for slavery, the relative evil done to groups like slaves, Holocaust victims or Native Americans -- relate in some way or another to the reparations debate. And many were in evidence Thursday.

Participants said that the while the issue isn't exactly capturing attention from Congressional leaders, it is getting attention in scholarship and in classrooms. "Most white Americans view the idea of reparations as a new or strange idea, but in fact it isn't new or strange," said Ray Finkenbine, a professor of history and director of the Black Abolitionist Archives at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Finkenbine traced the history of the reparations idea back to before the United States was a country, when the topic was discussed in colonial circles. The main reason the idea has seemed so "fringe" to white people recently is that, after the Civil War, the reparations movement changed from one with interracial support to one that was taken seriously only by black people. He added that historians today have a responsibility -- and one he said that they are starting to fulfill -- to fight this "racial amnesia" in white America.

The recent publication of Mary Frances Berry's My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations (Knopf) is one of a series of new books that show just how long the movement has been around, Finkenbine said.

Several participants said that there were reasons that the reparations issue is particularly a focus on college campuses, and likely to increase as a focus. In 2001, the conservative activist David Horowitz took out anti-reparations ads in numerous student newspapers, which got rejected by some papers and set off protests at other campuses. In many cases, his anti-reparations ad -- which many viewed as needlessly inflammatory -- ended up attracting more interest to the issue than existed previously.

Then in 2003, Brown University created the Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which is examining a series of topics including the links between Brown's founders and the slave trade. Ruth Simmons, Brown's president, has said that the committee will not lead to a reparations plan from the university, but the committee has been widely described (and was described by some historians Thursday) as a reparations committee.

The panel has been finishing up its work and is planning to present its findings soon to Simmons, who is expected to release them to the public. That the panel isn't pushing for financial payments doesn't mean it doesn't fit in the reparations debate, others said. Several scholars said that the reparations movement should be viewed as seeking "public acknowledgment" in some way, and that checks are just one form such acknowledgment might take.

Marie Jenkins Schwartz, an associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, said that Brown's move is part of a broader shift in public attitudes about slavery. She said that when she arrived in Rhode Island 11 years ago, no one in the state seemed aware that there had once been slaves there. Now she is teaching students who learned about this part of the state's history "and want to know what to do with that information."

Not all of that information will be easy for people to process, warned Emma Jones Lapsansky, curator of the Quaker Collection and a professor of history at Haverford College and co-editor of Back to Africa: Benjamin Coates and the Colonization Movement in America, 1848-1880 (Pennsylvania State University Press). Coates was a businessman who opposed slavery and wanted to pay freed slaves money -- to send them back to Africa.

Lapsansky said the Coates story and so many other bits of history suggest that the reparations debate is about much more than reparations. "This is about who ought to be in this country, who ought to get land, and who has a right to decide," she said.

Most of the attendees at Thursday's session were white, and Lapsansky noted that even though she was one of the few black people present, the issue of reparations speaks to white and black scholars and students. "There is a larger American ache," she said. Students are frequently attracted to the reparations movement when they learn about slavery, and are stunned by the details, even if they knew at some level about slavery from a young age, several professors and high school teachers said. Some described students crying and asking "what can we do?"

At a few points, the session risked dissolving into political rhetoric, with stories about black suffering competing with quips about whether Oprah Winfrey needs reparation payments. But most of the discussion was civil and more scholarly. (The comment about Oprah was expanded by another scholar to focus on the issue of whether reparations were originally to be seen as a tool for slaves to start earning money to support themselves, or as compensation -- a question that has ramifications for the debate today.)

One scholar suggested that reparations not be paid to individuals but into scholarship funds that would help low-income black students. By providing "40 months of tuition and a tutor," such a fund could replace the old concept of "40 acres and a mule."

Updating "40 acres and a mule" is, of course, complicated. One person at the session said he was there because he opposed reparations, which he said would send a signal that the United States alone was responsible for slavery, when the blame needed to be shared with other countries. This scholar also spoke about how paying reparations would create a precedent.

Miranda Booker, a Ph.D. student in history at Howard University, responded by noting that talking about reparations as a unique idea was false. She noted that the United States had made payments to those Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during World War II, and that it did not strike Americans as odd that Germany has made payments to Jews who were sent to concentration camps. "Why is it only African Americans where this issue is so difficult?" Booker asked, suggesting that people needed to do "some soul searching" about that.

When a community college professor who described himself as a libertarian said that there was a difference in that the reparations cited by Booker and others went to victims and not their descendants, several scholars noted that black groups had sought reparations immediately after emancipation. "The time that has passed cannot be attributed to black folk," said Michael Benjamin, a Ph.D. candidate in history at Drew University.

Finkenbine said that historians can contribute -- even while policy makers are hostile to reparations -- by reminding others of some of the facts discussed at the session. He noted that many early advocates for reparations warned that if they weren't paid right after the slaves were freed, the issue would resurface again and again. Thursday's session, he said, suggested that these advocates were correct.


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