Reparations 101: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask


The Vice-Chancellor of the University of the West Indies Sir Hilary Beckles was scheduled to appear at today’s special congressional hearing on H.R.40 – as a long-time lobbyist – in the United States. This is my friend and blogger Dr. Anne C. Bailey’s take on “Juneteenth” and the start of a series on her Baileyblog that you might like to follow. Dr. Bailey would love to get YOUR feedback on the issue. 

Dr. Anne Bailey is a Jamaican-born writer, historian, and professor of History at SUNY Binghamton (State University of New York). Photo: Baileyblog

Reparations 101: Everything You Wanted to Know But Were Afraid to Ask

Today is Juneteenth Day. Juneteenth is the day that many African Americans celebrate as Emancipation Day because it was on June 19, 1865 that Union troops entered Galveston, Texas and freed the enslaved. Though the Emancipation Proclamation was issued on January 1, 1863, it was not until two years and a half years later that the slaves of Texas received their freedom. For this reason, this day has a special significance. Well, today it is also significant because the House of Representatives is holding a special hearing on H.R.40—a bill to establish a commission to study the issue of reparations sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee.   I hope this will be one of many hearings and town halls on the subject not only in DC but all around the country. Here at Baileyblog, today is also the start of a new series on Reparations that we are calling, Reparations 101: Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.

In this series, we will draw on some of the most important scholarship and activism, historically to the present, to look at the issue of reparations as objectively as possible. We will look at all arguments – pro and against. We hope to hear from many of you and want you to voice your opinions. Given my over twenty-five years of studying slavery and the slave trade, it is my contention that Reparations are warranted in two ways: 1) redress for past wrongs and 2) rememory—recovery of the past through national sites, teaching curricula and other instruments.

I and other contributors will make a strong case but we would like you to view this series similar to a town hall venue in which interventions from every side can be considered. It is important for all of us to share our views while mindful of civil and respectful discourse. One of the reasons why this issue is sometimes called controversial is because we have not talked it out sufficiently. Many of us have kept our views to ourselves and have not dared to say what we think and feel. Around the dining room table or with our intimate friends, we may say a word, but otherwise, we are silent.

And has this silence helped to heal our racial divisions? We at Baileyblog do not believe so. We hope you will be silent no more. We hope, too, that you will ask questions that we will attempt to answer. So bring any and all questions about slavery and its legacy to our attention and we will do our best to answer them.

In my two books, I have dealt with this issue in depth so that is where we will start. This is the case for Reparations that I made in African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame which was originally published in 2005 (Beacon Press.):

Forty acres and a mule, a promise unfulfilled. (Picture: Maryland Daily Examiner)

What is equally striking, however, is a similar silence that covers the history of the African Diaspora on the issue of slavery including and especially on this issue of reparations. Still, there are several important historical markers that break this silence in the New World. Under Special Field Order no. 15, issued in 1865, newly emancipated slaves were to receive “forty acres and a mule.” A number of freedmen had already received their forty acres at the time Congress passed the bill. But this promise was not to be kept.  After Lincoln was assassinated, President Andrew Jackson soon thereafter vetoed the bill. At the same time, it cannot be underscored enough that while there was no restitution for slaves, President Lincoln during the Civil War supported a plan to compensate slave owners for their loss of property. In fact, though the slave-owning classes of the South did not receive compensation for emancipated slaves, those of the District of Columbia remarkably were compensated through the work of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation in the District of Columbia. And so, while there was a silence on questions of restitution for blacks, there was action for slave-owning whites, who had already been the primary beneficiaries during the era of slavery. It is apparent that during this period of Emancipation and its aftermath, there was little commitment to truly advancing parity and equality between blacks and whites. Historian Eric Williams affirms that the same was true in the Caribbean, in that the British gave emancipation to black slaves primarily for their own economic goals, and parity and equality for the ex-slaves was never a strong overriding issue. Furthermore, the British compensated the white Caribbean landowners to the tune of $20 million pounds for their loss of property, while giving no restitution to those who had lost home and heritage—and often life and limb —over 250 years of slavery. (African Voices, Chapter 8, p. 219)

Sources: See also Randall Robinson’s The Debt regarding issues of redress, Toni Morrison’s Beloved for the concept of rememory and Mary Frances Berry’s My Face is Black is True: Callie House and The Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.

Anne C. Bailey, Author of The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History.

Image of an antislavery medallion of the late 18th century, from the British Museum (female version of classic early abolitionist “AM I NOT A MAN AND A BROTHER?” graphic; Public Domain.

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