Thousands of people marched and protested locally, nationally, and globally in the days and weeks after the senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis, Minnesota, police officer. This murder, more than other murders, seemed to compel an internal examination of what it means to be an American in the midst of continued racial inequity and lack of justice in “post-racial” America. As the nation grappled with relentless murders of unarmed African American men and women, COVID-19 swept through the nation, resulting in millions of Americans losing their jobs, housing, and, for some of them, their lives. COVID-19 especially affected the African American community and exposed a significant wealth disparity between African Americans and white Americans. The African American community “lack[s] sufficient income and wealth to buffer both the job loss and the economic crisis that have resulted from the . . . pandemic.” It was in this climate that there was a renewed call for reparations for African Americans not only locally, but nationally, to address the wealth disparities highlighted by the pandemic.
What Are Reparations?
Reparations emerge from the “idea that a group wronged in the past may be compensated by a monetary reward in the present.” The debate about reparations reaches as far back as Colonial America. The first recorded case of reparations for slavery in the United States occurred in Massachusetts in 1789. Belinda Sutton was a Ghanaian-born woman who was enslaved by the Royall family in Massachusetts. Sutton’s enslaver abandoned her at the beginning of the American Revolution. Sutton presented a petition to the Massachusetts General Court requesting payment for 50 years of service from the proceeds of her enslaver’s estate. The court granted Sutton a pension of 15 pounds and 12 shillings.
As the Civil War ended, many in positions of power, federally and locally, began to think about what would become of the enslaved once freed. One proposal, “40 acres and a mule,” was a possible solution. Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Field Order No. 15. This order awarded large tracts of confiscated land to the freedmen. This meant that roughly 400,000 acres of land from Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. Johns River in Florida were to be distributed. The new owners’ rights were to be protected by the military until they could protect themselves or until Congress could regulate their titles to the land. As a result of the order, about 40,000 freedmen settled on the land.
Unfortunately, the federal reparations experiment was short-lived. After the assassination of Abraham Lincoln on April 15, 1865, his successor Andrew Johnson canceled these land distributions. With this cancellation, the confiscated land was returned to the original owners. All freedmen had to abandon their lands. In 1867, there was another attempt to pass a bill to redistribute land to the freedmen. However, this bill failed to pass.
The federal government has not attempted to address issues of reparations for African Americans since the Lincoln administration. However, in 1989, Congressman John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) drafted and introduced H.R. 3745, Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. This act called for the establishment of a congressional commission to “examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African American.” At the conclusion of the study, the act required the commission to “make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.” Unfortunately, the act failed to make it to the floor of the House of Representatives for a vote. This act has been introduced in every session of Congress following Congressman Conyers’s initial introduction, but the results have been the same.
The National Debate About Reparations Today
The most recent iteration for reparations was introduced by Congresswoman Shelia Jackson Lee (D-TX) on January 3, 2019, to the 116th Congress, House of Representatives. H.R. 40, the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act, “establishes a federal commission to study the legacy of slavery in the United States and its ongoing harm and develop proposals for redress and repair, including reparations.” Additionally, similar proposed legislation was introduced in the Senate as S.1083 by Senator Cory Booker on April 9, 2019. The Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans was established to “address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865.” As of the date of this publication, neither bill has advanced to a vote beyond their respective judiciary committees.
Reparations Addressed on the Local Level
While the movement to obtain reparations for African Americans seemed to have stalled in Congress, several localities are moving ahead with studying and funding reparation efforts for their African American residents.
Tulsa, Oklahoma: Pursuing Legal Redress from the City and State
Tulsa, the scene of one of the worst modern-day massacres in United States’ history, celebrated its centennial anniversary on May 30, 2021. At the turn of the twentieth century, Jim Crow policies made it taboo for individuals of different races to interact. On May 30, 1921, a rumor was circulated around town that an African American man named Dick Rowland was riding in an elevator with a white woman, Sarah Page. It was especially dangerous for African American men to interact with white women. Indeed, this danger was best described by Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird about Tom Robinson, “For a black man, a sexual advance to a white woman was a certain invitation to a tortured death.”
No one knew for sure what occurred on that elevator ride, but the result was the arrest of Rowland by the Tulsa Police Department on May 31, 1921. As a result of sensationalized reports of an assault by the press, violent confrontations between white and African American residents flared up throughout the city. In response, many African American residents retreated across town to their section of the city called Greenwood.
At the time of the massacre, Greenwood was the haven for African American residents in Tulsa. Dubbed “Black Wall Street,” Greenwood was one of “the most affluent black communities in the country.” Prior to the massacre, Greenwood boasted a population of more than 100,000 Black residents. It was “home to luxury shops, 21 restaurants, 30 grocery stores, a hospital, a savings and loan, a post office, three hotels, jewelry and clothing stores, two movie theaters, a library, pool halls, a bus and cab service, a nationally recognized school system, six private airplanes and two black newspapers.” After the massacre, Greenwood was burned to the ground with “more than 800 people treated for injuries and 36 deaths.” Modern historians believe that the number of deaths was more than 36—more likely to be 300 people.
As of result of this tragedy, several African American descendants of the massacre filed suit against Tulsa in efforts to obtain reparations for the damage occurred by the riot. The lawsuit names 11 plaintiffs, including survivors and relatives of survivors. These plaintiffs are suing the city, the State of Oklahoma, the Oklahoma National Guard, and the local chamber of commerce under the public nuisance statute. The plaintiffs “want the defendants to make it right with things like a victims’ compensation fund and a tax exemption for descendants.” As of the publication of this article, the lawsuit continues to go forward.
Evanston, Illinois: Implementation of a Reparations Program
Evanston, a college-town suburb of Chicago, leads the nation in implementing reparations for their African American residents. The City of Evanston passed Resolution 58-R-19, Commitment to End Structural Racism and Achieve Racial Equity, in the summer of 2019. This resolution mandates that the City Council “[take] action to address the historical wealth and opportunity gaps that African Americans/Black residents of Evanston experienced. The Council identified five categories that should be the focus on local reparation funding: (1) housing, (2) economic development, (3) education, (4) finances, and (5) history/culture. The city decided to focus their first reparations initiatives on a housing program.
In 2019, the City Council voted to allocate the first $10 million in tax revenue from the sale of recreational marijuana to fund reparation initiatives that address the gaps in wealth and opportunities for African American residents. To qualify for relief, a person must identify as Black or African American, having origins in any of the Black racial and ethnic groups of Africa. Further, a person must reside in Evanston at the time of the disbursement of funds. However, these funds are not tax free. A recipient of funds would be liable for paying any taxes due on the award.
Evanston’s racist housing practices harmed generations of African American residents. An impact study ordered by the City Council identified “not only a direct correlation between specific harms and the individuals who were impacted, but also the secondary and tertiary harms to their families and the Black community in Evanston.” Specifically, the exclusion of the African American community in Evanston began before the town was incorporated. Further, the study affirmed that housing discrimination policies were “created with racial animus that led to the development of programs formed with the specific intention of harming the Black community.” Once these racist programs were implemented by the city, they created a “myriad of harmful impacts to African American residents . . . including but not limited to diminished economic opportunities, health disparities, over-policing, and reduced access to educational resources.”
As a result of the study’s findings, Evanston created the Restorative Housing Program. This initiative is the first of its kind. The goal of this initiative is to focus on “preserving, stabilizing, and increasing homeownership which in turn builds intergenerational wealth among Blacks and African Americans residents.” To be eligible for the program, participants must be: (1) at least 18 years old, (2) of Black/African American ancestry, and (3) an ancestor or direct descendant of an ancestor that experienced housing discrimination because of the city’s policies and practices.
In Amherst, Massachusetts, the Town Council recognized the harms suffered by African Americans as a direct result of slavery and racist post-slavery de jure and de facto laws. It was their belief that “[we can] locally create an opportunity for Black residents to design a reparative plan that comes in many forms and, importantly, benefits all residents.” Although the Town Council does not yet know what form these reparations will take, the African Heritage Reparation Assembly will “develop a narrowly defined harm report which links specific harms that occurred in Amherst, like racial deed covenants . . . to determine the impact for Blacks who currently live or have lived in Amherst.” As of May 2021, a reparation stabilization fund as well as a committee to study and develop reparation proposals for African Americans was voted on and approved.
Other Entities That Are Implementing Reparations: Universities and Churches
In addition to localities, other entities such as universities and churches are taking a hard look at their actions and determining whether they too should consider providing reparations to African Americans. For example, in 2019, Georgetown University announced that it would raise $400,000 per year to fund the college educations of descendants of the 272 enslaved people who were sold 200 years ago to save the university from bankruptcy. Additionally, in 2019, the Virginia Theological Seminary earmarked $1.7 million to pay reparations to the descendants of African Americans who were enslaved to work on their campus. The seminary made the first distributions of $2,100 to 15 descendants in February 2021.
The late Congressman John Conyers Jr.’s push for reparations to address racial and social injustices that African American citizens, including himself, endured since this country’s founding has not yet been successful nationally as Conyers would have wanted. However, localities and other entities such as colleges/universities and religious organizations have been at the forefront in addressing the root causes of inequity and provide a variety of solutions that benefit not only African Americans but also the community at large.
The author would like to thank her research assistant, Angelica N. Richardson, for assisting with the legal research for this piece.