Beyond ‘40 acres and a mule’: Commentary on reparations

Why We Wrote This

Can America move toward a more just future without paying for past wrongs? Columnist Ken Makin explores the historical context of calls for reparations.

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DonQuenick demands reparations in front of a crowd of concerned citizens who gathered at the steps of Denver City Hall on June 29, 2020.

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George Floyd’s death just over a month ago at the hands of Minneapolis police has upended this country – yielding social unrest, public uprisings, and renewed political urgency. 

That angst has yielded surges of support for the idea that Black lives matter from politicians and corporations. But whether it’s regarding the police or the populace, many Black folks are looking for one thing – real conviction. There is a rising call for policy that reflects the profession of concerns about Black people – and in some cases, a call for Black reparations.

Finding a consensus on Black reparations is challenging. Varying surveys and polls suggest that while Americans may be ready to address grievances against Black people in America, they may not be ready to redress those grievances. It is a discussion that has taken place for more than 100 years, from Union Army Gen. William Sherman in 1865 to Ta-Nehisi Coates today.

As Mr. Coates testified before Congress one year ago, the real question of reparations is “not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.”

George Floyd’s death just over a month ago at the hands of Minneapolis police has upended this country – yielding social unrest, public uprisings, and renewed political urgency. This angst has manifested itself into promises of police reform, the rebuke and removal of racist edifices, and a stunning declaration from corporations – Black Lives Matter.

With that said, there are concerns that the changes and viewpoints expressed by corporations and politicians are performative. “Let’s not turn Black Lives Matter into Black Lives Marketing,” challenged a recent commentary in Black Enterprise. It urged corporations to look beyond public declarations and examine their own diversity and hiring, among other practices. Whether it’s regarding the police or the populace, many Black folks are looking for one thing – real conviction. There is a rising call for policy that reflects the profession of concerns about Black people – and in some cases, a call for Black reparations.

Finding a consensus on Black reparations is challenging. Varying surveys and polls suggest that while Americans may be ready to address grievances against Black people in America, they may not be ready to redress those grievances. It is a discussion that has taken place for more than 100 years. An iconic, albeit, slightly inaccurate phrase accompanies the idea of Black reparations – “40 acres and a mule.” It is a phrase derived from Special Field Order No. 15, a military order issued by Union Army Gen. William Sherman in 1865 that affected the Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida coasts. The first article reads:

The islands from Charleston, south, the abandoned rice fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the St. Johns River, Florida, are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.

After the second article emphasized military protections and that the “Negro is free,” the designation regarding the “40 acres” was made in the third article:

Whenever three respectable negroes, heads of families, shall desire to settle on land, and shall have selected for that purpose an island or a locality clearly defined, within the limits above designated, the Inspector of Settlements and Plantations will himself, or by such subordinate officer as he may appoint, give them a license to settle such island or district, and afford them such assistance as he can to enable them to establish a peaceable agricultural settlement. The three parties named will subdivide the land, under the supervision of the Inspector, among themselves and such others as may choose to settle near them, so that each family shall have a plot of not more than (40) forty acres of tillable ground, and when it borders on some water channel, with not more than 800 feet water front, in the possession of which land the military authorities will afford them protection, until such time as they can protect themselves, or until Congress shall regulate their title.

As previously expressed, 1865 was a pivotal year in regards to Black liberation. However, as sure as certain promises were made by Sherman, and by extension, then-President Abraham Lincoln, those proclamations were reversed by Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. The Reconstruction period held a lot of promise for Black Americans, but this country’s failure to uphold its promises were apparent even before the noted political violence of groups such as the Red Shirts in 1876. These failed promises are especially troublesome when juxtaposed with legislation such as the District of Columbia Compensated Emancipation Act. The act, which preceded the Emancipation Proclamation by nine months, set aside $1 million for reparations for slaveholders.

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
Sacks labeled #THEBLACKTEAPARTY highlight the economic impact of Black people in the United States during an Atlanta event to mark Juneteenth, June 19, 2020.

Such double standards have created the framework for modern calls for reparations. In 1989, late U.S. Representative John Conyers proposed a bill to create a commission to study and develop reparations proposals. Once again, the year of 1865 was mentioned as a flashpoint:

An act to address 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 study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial 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.

The bill was reintroduced to the House last January as H.R. 40 by Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. Other notable champions of reparations include William “Sandy” Darity, a Black economist at Duke University who has spent the last 30 years studying reparations.

I had the good fortune to interview Dr. Darity and his wife, A. Kirsten Mullen, in the midst of promoting their new book, “From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century.” It’s a comprehensive book that looks at reparations from not only a financial standpoint, but a historical and sociological one.

David J. Phillip/AP
Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas speaks as family and guests attend the funeral service for George Floyd at The Fountain of Praise church June 9, 2020, in Houston.

Amid an era where we are seeing commentaries about reparations from The New York Times and Forbes magazine, among others, Dr. Darity and Ms. Mullen dare to draw a “thick line from the nation’s origins to the present”:

The case we build in this volume is based on all three tiers or phases of injustice: slavery, American apartheid (Jim Crow), and the combined effects of present-day discrimination and the ongoing deprecation of Black lives. Most advocates of Black reparations have focused exclusively on the injustice of slavery as the basis for redress. ... We submit that the bill of particulars for Black reparations almost must include contemporary, ongoing injustices – injustices resulting in barriers and penalties for the Black descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.

Six years ago this month, “The Case for Reparations” was made in The Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was a message that ascended Mr. Coates as one of the premier intellectuals in the country. His perspective on the issue was so powerful that he was selected to offer testimony at a congressional hearing a year ago. The end of that testimony is as relevant now as it was then:

The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Black women die in childbirth at four times the rate of white women. And there is, of course, the shame of this land of the free boasting the largest prison population on the planet, of which the descendants of the enslaved make up the largest share. The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.

Ken Makin is a freelance writer and the host of the “Makin’ A Difference” podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @differencemakin.

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