On 14 April, members of Congress took a landmark step closer towards a long-awaited national reckoning over the compounded, generations-long impacts of slavery – and whether the US will formally recognise the need to redress its legacy, and apologise for it.
HR 40 – as in “40 acres and a mule”, the false promise offered to formerly enslaved people in the Civil War’s wake by Union general William Tecumsah Sherman – would create a 13-member commission to study and hold hearings on the impacts of slavery and discrimination before issuing “appropriate remedies” to Congress, as well as the form of a national apology.
It will head to the full House for a vote. The milestone follows decades of support and several stalled legislative attempts, as well as the death of the US Rep John Conyers, who first introduced the measure in 1989.
But it also follows decades of organising and demands among Black Americans and the ancestors of enslaved people in dozens of cities, university campuses, seminaries and local governments to deliver reparations to communities across the US.
After building momentum for years, several cities and institutions are beginning to create a framework, or the creation of a task force or committee, or funding sources, to bring reparations to communities.
“Reparations may be one of the most sensitive subjects in the nation, yet with increases in police killings and continual racial, social and economic injustices perpetrated on African Americans it has received a new energy of support,” the National Coalition for Reparations in America said following the committee vote.
Last year, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law a measure to create a task force to make recommendations for reparations, the first effort of its kind from a state government. The measure creates a nine-member task force to “inform Californians about slavery and explore ways the state might provide reparation”.
Also last year, Providence, Rhode Island Mayor Jorge Elorza signed an executive order to initiate a “truth-telling and reparations process” to demonstrate “a commitment that we’re making to a process,” he said.
The city of Burlington, Vermont also formed a task force in 2020 to study reparations for the descendants of enslaved people. It held its first meeting in November.
City officials in Durham, North Carolina and Washington DC have also urged the federal government to support reparations.
Other cities and institutions have issued more-focused efforts towards reparations, addressing the racist violence and systemic injustices in slavery’s wake, but none have approached the scope of slavery’s impacts.
In 2015, Chicago officials supported an ordinance to invest $5.5m for victims of police torture in the 1970s and 1980s.
Last year, Evanston, Illinois identified discriminatory housing policies in the 20th century as the “strongest case for reparations” in the form of a programme to support homeownership and mortgage assistance, not direct payments, with funding from $10 million in tax revenue from the sale of recreational marijuana following its legalisation in early 2020.
The city council of Asheville, North Carolina unanimously approved a reparations resolution for Black residents that formally apologised for its role in slavery and the systemic injustice, with investments in Black communities. It’s the first measure of its kind for a southern state.
Efforts in Evanston and Asheville have also stirred debate over whether limited investments, rather than direct payments, provide the restorative justice sought by the advocates who have fought for decades to secure them.
The yearlong public reckoning on racism and systemic injustice – laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic and the high-profile police killings of Black Americans – also approaches the 100th anniversary of a racist massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a community that has also fought for reparations for the families of the hundreds of victims of an assault led by a mob of white Americans against a once-booming Black community, and whitewashed as “riots” in the aftermath.
Its legacy remains a dark stain in US history, following enslavement, Reconstruction and a Jim Crow-era marked by public lynchings and the beginnings of mass incarceration emerging from slavery.
During the House Judiciary Committee hearing on HR 40, US Rep Jamaal Bowman of New York said that the “compounding” effects of racism have “created a dynamic where Black people today must not only grapple with living in a country built on our sustained oppression, but also observe the modern manifestations in our daily lives”.
“The centuries-long injustices of slavery and its legacy, fuelling the persistence of racial inequality today, remain largely unaccounted for,” said Human Rights Watch racial justice researcher and advocate Dreisen Heath. “As states, cities, and other institutions pursue reckonings, Congress should step up to lead the nation in accounting and atoning for the ongoing impact of slavery.”
Lessie Benningfield Randle, a 105-year-old woman in Tulsa, and six other defendants have filed a lawsuit seeking accountability and restitution for the massacre on 1 June, 1921.
The city remains incredibly segregated – the northern part of the city holds 17 per cent of the city’s population and 41 per cent of its Black residents. More than 35 per cent of north Tulsa’s population lives in poverty, compared with 17 per cent in the rest of the city, according to Human Rights Watch. Black residents are more than twice as likely to be arrested than white residents.
Tulsa is a “case study in abusive, overly aggressive policing in the US,” the organisation said.
“The longer harms go unaddressed, the more difficult and complex it will be to develop adequate reparation mechanisms that are proportionate to the gravity of the crime and to the harm caused,” the organisation said in its case for reparations.
In Elaine, Arkansas, a “Fund for Reparations Now” was established for the descendants of another racist massacre that led to the deaths of at least 200 Black residents in 1919.
Reparations proposed by several colleges and universities and seminaries that have benefitted from slavery have been at a forefront of more recent reparations efforts.
In 2016, Georgetown University acknowledged that the school has profited from the sale of people. Three years later, students there supported increasing tuition to benefit the descendants of 272 enslaved Africans sold into bondage by Jesuits who ran the school two centuries ago. The university also has sought to raise $400,000 a year though donations for the cause.
In 2019, the Virginia Theological Seminary dedicated $1.7m to pay reparations to descendants of enslaved people who were forced to work on the campus.
Princeton’s Theological Seminary pledged $27m – one of the largest sums yet – to various causes following its admission that it benefitted from slave labour.
A recognition for reparations at the federal level, rather than myriad community-driven efforts across the US, will face immense opposition among Republican lawmakers, who have insisted slavery remains in the past, or have proposed amendments to make Democrats pay for it, or called the idea of a commission “evil” in its intent.
“We’re asking for people to understand the pain, the violence, the brutality, the chattel-ness of what we went through,” Rep Lee told the committee. “We’re asking for harmony, reconciliation, a reason to come together as Americans.”