The House Hearing on Slavery Reparations Is Part of a Long History. Here's What to Know on the Idea's Tireless Early AdvocatesBreaking News
tags: Congress, slavery, African American history, reparations, Congressional hearings
Arica L. Coleman is a scholar of U.S. history and the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia and a former chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians.
On Wednesday, the issue of reparations for slavery will be a topic of discussionon Capitol Hill during a hearing scheduled by the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties “to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the [African America] community and the path to restorative justice.” This round of hearings is a follow-up to the 2007 hearings led by Former Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who from 1989 to 2017 sponsored House Resolution 40, calling for a congressional study of reparations. Conyers contended that raising the topic was not meant to be divisive or controversial but rather that it was necessary as, he stated, “Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is addressed, our country’s story will remain marked.” With the publication of Randall Robinson’s bestselling book The Debt: What America Owes Blacks in 2000, the compelling 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (who will testify at the hearing) and its injection into the 2020 Presidential election, some in Congress believe the moment has come to accept the invitation to debate the issue.
Yet the debate about reparations for slavery is not a new one — and the history of the idea shows just how many roadblocks there are to a meaningful conversation about the topic. In fact, around the turn of the 20th century, the federal government exercised its power to silence the voices of thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans who sought restitution for their two and a half centuries of legalized enslavement.
While the 13th Amendment abolished chattel slavery in the United States in 1865, it made no provision for restitution to the formerly enslaved population, which numbered approximately four million. The policy popularly referred to as “40 acres and a mule,” a promise by the federal government to redistribute land to former slaves that had been confiscated from Confederate rebels during the Civil War, was immediately overturned by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson, who reestablished white Southern rule. With the end of government support for land going to freedpeople, a sharecropping system arose in its place, leaving them economically destitute. In a letter to Democratic politician Walter R. Vaughan of Iowa in 1890, Frederick Douglass marveled that the American government had failed to compensate black people for 250 years of unpaid labor, which included building the Capitol and White House. “The Egyptian bondsmen went out with the spoils of his master, and the Russian serf was provided with farming tools and three acres of land upon which to begin life,” Douglass wrote, “but the Negro has neither spoils, implements nor lands, and today he is practically a slave on the very plantation where formerly he was driven to toil under the lash.”
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