The centuries-long fight for reparationsRoundup
tags: slavery, racism, African American history, Georgetown, reparations
Ana Lucia Araujo is a professor of history at Howard University, and author most recently of "Reparations for Slavery and the Atlantic Slave Trade: A Transnational and Comparative History."
Nearly five years ago, Georgetown University students brought to light an unexpected event associated with the university’s history. In 1838, the Jesuits who owned the university sold 272 enslaved men, women and children to pay the institution’s debts. That history — hardly a surprise to historians, who know the Catholic Church was the largest slave owner in the Americas — triggered a call for reparations. A few weeks ago, Georgetown students voted to create a fund, financed by an annual student fee, to aid the descendants of these enslaved people.
Georgetown students were not the first to demand reparations for slavery. Fifty years ago, a group of black activists led by James Forman demanded reparations for slavery from churches and synagogues. Like today’s calls for reparations, those demands emphasized the horrors of slavery and its aftermath: White America represented by the churches and synagogues exploited their ancestors and imposed on them the “most vicious, racist system in the world.” Then, and now, the call for reparations is about the need to address wealth inequalities plaguing African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved.
There is a long and old tradition of black men and women demanding restitution for the time they were enslaved. As early as the 18th century, former slaves such as Belinda Sutton of Massachusetts formulated individual demands for reparations from their masters. (Sutton ultimately received a pension, though hers was a rare case.)
Collective calls for reparations emerged at the end of the 19th century, when it became clear that the post-Civil War attempts to redistribute land to former slaves and ensure full citizenship would not be accomplished. Thousands of former slaves gathered around the country to demand that Congress pass a bill providing them with pensions. But the movement was not successful. Its leaders, including a fearless formerly enslaved woman, Callie House, were prosecuted and sent to prison, accused of mail fraud.
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