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Sunday, February 11, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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U.S. slavery reparations: Hope that a race will be compensated gains momentum

The Associated Press

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CHICAGO - Brother Howshua is certain. The burly black man in the black suit, black leather hat, black boots and spirit to match knows he has the prescription for his people's psychic and financial ills on the piece of paper suffocating in his weathered hands.

Now to get the rest of the world on board.

First, he clears his throat. Howshua is about to drop the bomb.

"For those blacks who wish to remain in America, they should receive reparations in the form of free education, free medical, free legal and free financial aid for 50 years with no taxes levied," booms the Chicago social activist.

Howshua thumps the paper with forefinger for emphasis, then continues:

"For those desiring to leave America, every black person would receive a million dollars or more, backed by gold, in reparation."

A solemn Howshua slowly lays the paper down. Listeners offer approving nods around the table.

"I'm glad you thought about us who will want to leave this country," said Omari Tahir, a Seattle civil-rights activist. "Because as soon as I get my money, I'm going home to Africa. We will get paid!"

40 acres and a mule

Others in the McCormick Convention Center conference room for the first National Reparations Convention are chewing over buffet-line turkey and the only real question of the weekend's events: Will black America ever get its long-sought "40 acres and a mule?"

"Our reason for being here is to get people interested in wanting their money," said the Rev. Al Dixon, who heads a group called BEAR, the Black Economic Alliance for Reparations, in Montgomery, Ala.

"The Japanese got theirs, the Jews are getting theirs," he said, referring to payments for internment and slave labor during World War II.

"The Indians can build casinos," he went on. "And the people who made it all possible by building this country for no pay are left out."

The 100 reparations-convention participants who gathered in Chicago this month aren't alone. They join a growing group of academics, activists and government officials who say that repaying blacks for the 246 years of unpaid labor of their ancestors could relieve poverty and hopelessness among modern-day blacks.

Moving into the mainstream

For years, the thought of compensating blacks for slavery and legal discrimination occupied the fringes of the black political agenda.

But now, more than 10 cities have adopted resolutions pushing for a federal inquiry into the effects of slavery.

And a high-powered group of attorneys, led by Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, announced intentions to file national class-action lawsuits in pursuit of reparations for black Americans.

When Rep. John Conyers first raised the notion in Congress 12 years ago to study the merits of repaying American blacks for the unpaid labor of their ancestors, the silence was deafening.

"It's an idea that was ahead of its time," said the Michigan Democrat. "But it's easy to understand. Race isn't a subject people rush in to discuss. They figure if you just keep quiet, it might go away."

It hasn't.

In fact, the rising interest in reparations matches a greater awareness among blacks to the enslavement of Africans which began in 1619 and was abolished when the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865.

And in small ways, American society is directly addressing this brutal history.

Last year Aetna apologized for selling insurance policies in the 1850s that reimbursed slave owners for financial losses when their slaves died.

On Jan. 1, a California law went into effect requiring insurance companies to make public any slave insurance policies they issued.

Thus far, no insurance company has come forward, said Leslie Tick, an attorney for the California insurance department.

"Some of the insurance companies said they thought it was a joke," Tick said. "Some others wanted to know if we didn't have anything better to do with our time."

Pressure on Congress grows

The ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, Conyers said he believes his long-offered bill - which would establish a commission to examine slavery, its lasting impacts and their possible remedies - could come up for a hearing in the current session.

Jeff Lungen, spokesman for the new House Judiciary chairman, James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, said it is too early to determine if Conyers' proposal will be on the agenda.

Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Dallas, Washington and Baltimore are among the cities urging passage of the Conyers bill. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley, who is white, supported the aldermen's resolution. "I am in agreement that it is time our nation explore the issue of slavery reparations through dialogue, public testimony and hearings," he said.

Precedents have been set

One reason why people are now willing to talk about reparations may be that other groups victimized because of their religion, skin color or nationality have won apologies and even cash payments for their suffering.

The U.S. government gave a letter of formal apology and $20,000 to each Japanese American held in internment camps during World War II.

Austria has established a $380 million fund to compensate Nazi-era slave laborers.

"We want what other groups have received, nothing more, nothing less," said Dorothy Lewis, co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America, N'COBRA, a Washington D.C.-based reparations organization.

"If the U.S. government can give out aid checks all over the world, why can't it aid the people it owes so much to?"

In a book published last year, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," Randall Robinson argued that contemporary disparities between blacks and whites can be traced to slavery.

"No race, ethnic or religious group has suffered as much over so long a span as blacks have and do still, at the hands of those who benefited ... from slavery and the century of legalized American racial hostility that followed it," said Robinson, founder of TransAfrica, a lobbying group on African and Caribbean issues.

Idea dates to Reconstruction

Conyers' bill and the planned lawsuits represent only the latest attempts to repay blacks.

In 1865, the Freedmen's Bureau, created by the government to help newly freed slaves, pledged 40-acre parcels and the loan of a federal mule to work the land.

But when President Andrew Johnson reneged, "40 acres and a mule" became an ironic slogan that has endured to convey all unfulfilled promises for black America.

From 1890 to 1903, William Vaughan, a white Alabamian, introduced nine congressional bills seeking compensation for ex-slaves. None ever became law.

The bills provided a pension to ex-slaves based on a scale, with those 70 and older to receive an initial $500, plus $15 a month.

Not a matter of money

Reparations supporters today, except for a few like Brother Howshua, don't talk about how much compensation they will seek.

Some, like the Rev. Leon Finney Jr., a Chicago minister, say they want something more than money. "If we are talking about real reparations ... ," Finney said, "we have to talk about how our family was ripped apart. The things that were done to us, money can't pay back."

The questions outnumber the answers at this point. But Dallas City Councilman James Fantroy, who attended the Chicago convention, isn't worried that most people, even black people, view the quest as the longest of longshots.

"A lot of black people never thought we would get the vote in the Deep South or ever be able to go to school together. But people began to change their minds and it built up momentum.

"I think we are getting to that point with reparations," he said. "I think this will become the most important issue for blacks in the coming years, but you have to start somewhere. This is somewhere."

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