40 acres and a mule: The toilsome tale of reparations in America

40 acres and a mule: The path to reparations in America. The phrase "40 acres and a mule" has been used in conversations about reparations for a long time. . But where did the phrase come from?. During Reconstruction, historians believe reparations were introduced as compensation for unpaid labor work during slavery. On Jan. 16, 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, which set aside a 30-mile tract of land along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts for former slaves and promised the Army’s help securing loaned mules. That order was necessary considering the 4 million slaves who were freed after the Civil War were left with no money, little education and no land. . Despite the efforts during this period, the land redistribution measures were ultimately abandoned. Most of that Southern land returned to white owners, who allowed former slaves to sharecrop for pennies on the dollar. One bill introduced in the Senate in 1894 would have granted direct payments of up to $500 to all ex-slaves plus monthly pensions ranging from $4 to $15. It never made it past congressional committees. Many civil rights activists rallied for reparations as well, but it often fell on deaf ears. . James Forman, then head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, proclaimed a “Black Manifesto.” . This manifesto demanded $500 million from American churches and synagogues for their role in supporting slavery before the Civil War. . Black nationalist organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, also supported the idea of repayment. Other minority groups have received some form of reparations. . In 1988, Japanese Americans received $20,000 checks and a letter of apology for the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. . As a result of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, eventually more than $1.6 billion was disbursed to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans, deeming it the most successful push for reparations in U.S. history. There is now a modern-day push for reparations, especially within the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor's deaths. . Rep. John Conyers fought for reparations until he died. He presented bills every year from 1989 until 2017 to review reparations for Black people. Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee reintroduced the bill after Conyers' death, with additions. . Although there has been a reinvigorated push for reparations, many have argued against it. . The latest U.S. Census Bureau data reveals the median net worth for the typical white family is $171,000, while the net worth for the typical Black family is $17,150. But, a June Washington Post/ABC poll found that 63% of Americans do not agree with Black Americans receiving reparations. . Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he disapproves of paying reparations for slavery because “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he and many have called America’s original sin. The financial atonement has been the focus for many debating reparations, but some cities and institutions have found a combination of ways to offer that restoration. In 2015, Chicago enacted a reparations ordinance benefiting hundreds of African Americans brutalized by police from the 1970s to the 1990s. . The law designates $5.5 million in financial compensation, as well as funding for a public memorial, and a range of assistance related to health, education and emotional well-being. This summer, Asheville, North Carolina, was added to the list of communities to vote to study and eventually offer reparations. Evanston, Illinois, plans to use marijuana sales taxes to fund reparations and Burlington, Vermont, is also considering it

The phrase “40 acres and a mule” has resonated for Black people since the first days of life post-slavery, but the concept, despite being posed as legislation and adopted by some individual cities, has failed to become a reality for the millions of descendants of slaves who have waited more than 155 years for such a repayment.

What began as a promise made to freed slaves in 1865 has become a centuries-long pursuit. Select ethnic groups, including Japanese Americans and Native Americans, have received amends in financial form from the federal government, but slave descendants have not seen such traction, by and large. Those opposed to the idea say there are no living slaves to repay and affirmative action and other social programs have aided Black people. On the other side of the issue, many point to the stark wealth gap between Black families and white families – with the net worth of the average white family 10 times more than the average Black family – as evidence that Black people have been perpetually affected by second-class citizenship.

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Debates about whether reparations are necessary for Black people and how to make it feasible abound, but ultimately the overarching question lingers today as it did 155 years ago: Will America repay Black people for enduring slavery?

At present, there’s not an answer to that question. Here we will explore what has stunted reparations for Black people during the last century, the successful cases of reparations and how the topic has been in the spotlight during the 2020 election.

40 acres and a mule: A brief history

During Reconstruction, historians believe reparations were introduced as compensation for unpaid labor work during slavery. On Jan. 16, 1865, Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, which set aside a 30-mile tract of land along the South Carolina and Georgia coasts for former slaves and promised the Army’s help securing loaned mules.

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That order was necessary considering the 4 million slaves who were freed after the Civil War were left with no money, little education and no land. To carry out that order, the Freedmen’s Bureau was authorized to divide abandoned and confiscated land into 40-acre tracts for rental and eventual sale to refugees and former slaves.

Despite the efforts during this period, the land redistribution measures were ultimately abandoned. President Andrew Johnson vetoed the legislation, according to the Constitutional Rights Foundation. Most of that Southern land returned to white owners, who allowed former slaves to sharecrop for pennies on the dollar.

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The next push for reparations for Black people came at the turn of the century, with several Black organizations lobbying Congress to provide pensions for former slaves and their children. One bill introduced in the Senate in 1894 would have granted direct payments of up to $500 to all ex-slaves plus monthly pensions ranging from $4 to $15. That, and other similar bills, never made it past congressional committees. The pension movement itself faded with the onset of World War I.

Unfinished business

As W. E. B. Du Bois wrote in 1935: “the slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.”

Du Bois' sentiment rang true for many Black people across the country, especially those living in the Jim Crow South. By the 1960s, Black organizers rallied for equal rights via the civil rights movement and brought reparations back into the forefront. In 1969, James Forman, then head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, proclaimed a “Black Manifesto.” That call to action demanded $500 million from American churches and synagogues for their role in supporting slavery before the Civil War. Black nationalist organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, also supported the idea of repayment, but the calls fell on deaf ears.

James Forman, executive secretary of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and singer/activist Harry Belafonte, right, are interviewed. (Horace Cort/ AP Photo)

Reparations came for some

Optimism for reparations for the descendants of slaves heightened in the 1970s and 1980s, when Native Americans and Japanese Americans received restitution.

The Supreme Court in 1980 ordered the federal government to pay eight Sioux Indian tribes $122 million to compensate for the illegal seizure of tribal lands in 1877. Congress also created the Indian Claims Commission to pay compensation to any federally recognized tribe for land that had been seized by the United States. Unfortunately, the payoff was not as rewarding. The group struggled to put value on the land for its agriculture or spiritual significance. Decades after the proposal was first introduced, the commission paid out about $1.3 billion, the equivalent of less than $1,000 for each Native American by the time the commission was dissolved in 1978.

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In 1988, Japanese Americans received $20,000 checks and a letter of apology for the imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II. As a result of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, eventually more than $1.6 billion was disbursed to more than 82,000 Japanese Americans, deeming it the most successful push for reparations in U.S. history.

The debate and pursuit continue

Rep. John Conyers fought for reparations until his death. He presented a bill every year from 1989 until 2017 to review reparations for Black people.

The bill’s preamble read:

To acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 American colonies between 1619 and 1865 and to establish a Commission to examine the institution of slavery, subsequent de jure and de facto and economic discrimination against African-Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African-Americans, to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies, and for other purposes.

In 2019, the year Conyers passed away, legislators picked up where he left off. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas congresswoman, reintroduced the bill, adding recommendations that “apology and compensation” would go along with the study. It’s yet to be passed. At August’s March on Washington, the congresswoman reiterated the need to pass the bill.

“This is a nation that has gone through slavery, Reconstruction, lynching, Jim Crowism,” Jackson Lee told The New York Times in June. “We’re in a new era. We have the hearts and minds of the American people. That’s why I think reparations will pass.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates' article, “The Case for Reparations,” from the June 2014 issue of The Atlantic helped galvanize a national reawakening to the necessity of reparations and continued effects of slavery. He talked to several people who were met at the demarcation line between wealth and poverty with redlining, low-paying jobs, subpar education and predatory home loans.

Though Coates interviewed individuals born in the early 1900s, their plight still presented itself in statistics for Black people today. The latest U.S. Census Bureau data reveals the median net worth for the typical white family is $171,000, while the net worth for the typical Black family is $17,150.

From Coates' Atlantic article:

“The lives of black Americans are better than they were half a century ago. The humiliation of whites only signs are gone. Rates of black poverty have decreased. Black teen-pregnancy rates are at record lows—and the gap between black and white teen-pregnancy rates has shrunk significantly. But such progress rests on a shaky foundation, and fault lines are everywhere. The income gap between black and white households is roughly the same today as it was in 1970.”

Closing that wealth gap will take trillions of dollars, which is why some have argued that it is impossible to provide restitution in the form of money. Additionally, the government has spent billions on social programs such as welfare, subsidized housing, health care, employment development, affirmative action and education, which has benefited African Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he disapproves of paying reparations for slavery because “none of us currently living are responsible” for what he and many have called America’s original sin.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea,” the Kentucky Republican told reporters in a 2019 news conference. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a Civil War, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.”

Most Americans agree with him. A June Washington Post/ABC poll found that 63% of Americans do not agree with Black Americans receiving reparations. The minority view has become more prevalent with focus now on racial equality in the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

Black Democrats have long expressed support for restitution for slavery, but the 2020 election has brought about more support from white leaders. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden says he will review the topic as part of his economic plan if elected. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Andrew Romanoff, who ran for a Senate seat in Colorado but lost to former Gov. John Hickenlooper, placed reparations at the center of their campaign priorities.

“Like other big ideas, reparations is one arriving more swiftly to the realm of the possible,” Romanoff told The New York Times. “For a long time, it was stuck in a debate over the mechanics and the money. How much would it cost? The first step is to recognize the moral obligation.”

A national plan to determine the mechanics is necessary, Dr. William Darity Jr., a Duke University public policy professor, told Complex. He has developed a matrix in his book, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in The Twentieth Century,” that creates a “baseline for reparation payments.” He suggests that Black families receive $800,000 a household as part of a $10 trillion to $12 trillion reparations proposal. About 40 million Black people would be eligible under the plan.

It’s not just ‘writing a check’

The financial atonement has been the focus for many debating reparations, but some cities and institutions have found a combination of ways to offer that restoration.

In 2015, Chicago enacted a reparations ordinance benefiting hundreds of African Americans brutalized by police from the 1970s to the 1990s. The law designates $5.5 million in financial compensation, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars for a public memorial, and a range of assistance related to health, education and emotional well-being.

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Last year, students at Georgetown University voted to create a fund that would raise $400,000 annually to benefit the descendants of almost 300 enslaved people sold by the college in the 1830s. Rather than pay those descendants directly, the plan is to invest the funds in charities and other indirect payments.

This summer, Asheville, North Carolina, was added to the list of communities to vote to study and eventually offer reparations. Cities such as Evanston, Illinois, which plans to use marijuana sales taxes to fund reparations, and Burlington, Vermont, are also studying the matter.

Julie Mayfield, Asheville councilwoman, told ABC News she and other councilmembers voted unanimously for the reparations plan to economically bridge the gap between the community’s white and Black residents.

Many pundits say Asheville and others may provide a blueprint for how reparations for Black people can ultimately come to fruition.

“A lot of people think reparations is just about writing a check. That’s not what it’s about,” she said. “What we’ve committed to do in this resolution is to invest in and create systems and programs and structures that will allow those community members to have the same opportunities for economic mobility to build generational wealth that white people do.”

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