How Reparations to Descendants of Slavery Can Heal a Nation

To truly understand the debt this country owes to Black people is to be liberated from the bondage of miseducation that we’ve remained shackled to in the so-called land of the free.

On a spring day, I stood at the corner of Madison and Pennsylvania avenues in the nation’s capital, transfixed on the building in front of me.

Passersby zigzagged around me.

In my trance, I imagined a “magnificent brownstone front, its towering height,” with “spacious windows.” A “splendid” sight indeed. Through those windows I imagined “its marble counters and black walnut finishings,” and “a row of its gentlemanly and elegantly dressed” Black men and women “clerks, with their pens behind their ears and buttonhole bouquets in their coat-fronts.”

It was “beautiful,” just as Frederick Douglass had described, nearly 140 years ago.

Someone brushing past me snapped me back to the present. I climbed the stairs of the building—across from the White House—to read the two plaques affixed to the Treasury Annex. The first read: “On this site stood the principal office of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company founded on March 3, 1865 to receive deposits from former slaves. Frederick Douglass served as its last president. The bank was closed on June 29, 1874. The building was sold in 1882, and razed a few years later.” The other, simply: “FREEDMAN’S BANK BUILDING.”

Sitting on the stairs, I started to consider the historical significance of that moment. Black people had—in nine years—amassed tens of millions of dollars, after 246 years of the most brutal and unimaginable treatment of any human being—kidnapping, trafficking, rape, castration, torture, uncompensated backbreaking labor.

I tried to imagine a world where 70,000 Black men and women who’d deposited nearly $60 million into the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company had not been swindled out of that money by White bank managers.

What if they had been able to invest their own dollars, and grow their own capital? What if Reconstruction hadn’t been disrupted and those newly freed men and women were allowed to keep and develop their 40 acres? What if reparations had been paid to them rather than to their enslavers? What might they and their descendants have collectively achieved?

The modern-day movement to repair the harm done to the descendants of enslaved Africans is rooted in a history that reaches back more than 400 years to before our arrival on U.S. shores. To truly understand the debt this country owes to Black people is to be liberated from the bondage of miseducation that we’ve remained shackled to in the so-called land of the free.

The case for reparations didn’t begin with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2014 bombshell article in The Atlantic that based our claim to reparations not only on the enslavement of African people on this land, but also for the post-emancipation exclusionary policies that followed: Jim Crow, Black Codes, redlining, mass incarceration. Coates’ article created an awakening, granting new life to a movement that dates back more than a century and a half.

The hard work of hundreds of organizations and individuals means the mainstream can no longer ignore the demand by questioning if reparations are warranted.

The discovery of wreckage from the slave ship Clotilda near Mobile, Alabama, earlier this year presents an ideal test case for reparations. Descendants of the ship’s owner are among the city’s wealthiest citizens—with land worth millions—while descendants of the 110 Africans brought over on the Cotilda “scrape by” on working-class wages.

Making atonement to the descendants of enslaved people was the subject of a Congressional Hearing on Reparations in June and the question of reparations is a live topic in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

The conversation now isn’t should it be done, but how. After all, paying reparations in this country is not a novel idea or deed. The United States government has compensated Sioux Indians for stolen land, Japanese Americans for internment, and supported Holocaust survivors in their reparation demands from Germany and Austria.

Nevertheless, many Whites are still threatened by the idea of reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans, and some Blacks are antagonistic toward it. But the attempts to recover the debt owed to Black people can no longer be ignored.

Recovering that debt will require the continued work of a critical mass, of not only Black people, but also White folks, whom presidential candidate Marianne Williamson said “are still passing the baton of horror and guilt and toxicity and emotional turbulence from generation to generation.”

This sometimes contentious conversation has fomented a more holistic conception of reparations: No longer about a one-time payout to Black folks, reparations today are about collective healing that’s going to take more than a check, a one-time fix—or any single remedy. Says Mashariki Jywanza, national co-chair of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America: “They should have just paid us then.”

Reparations Timeline

The first efforts to atone for the damages of slavery and seek reparations for formerly enslaved Africans came in 1865 during a meeting between 20 Black pastors and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. The meeting led to Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, which sought to redistribute 400,000 acres along the South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida coasts confiscated from Confederates after their defeat in the Civil War.

The newly freed families were each given 40 acres of land, and some received surplus mules from the army, but Sherman’s order was rescinded by President Andrew Johnson just months later. The phrase “40 acres and a mule” has since come to represent the broken promise to pay compensation for centuries of slavery.

In the years to follow there would be innumerable efforts to collect reparations for Black people.

In 1890, William Connell, a Nebraska Republican, introduced the first “ex-slave pension bill” in Congress. He did so at the request of Walter Vaughan, an Omaha Democrat, who had received a letter from Frederick Douglass marveling that the U.S. government had failed to compensate Black people for 250 years of unpaid labor, including building the Capitol and White House.

The idea of pensions for the formerly enslaved, one of several such proposals at the time, was modeled after the Civil War-era program for military service pensions.

Then in 1898, a formerly enslaved woman, a widow and mother of five named Callie House, who worked as a laundress, and an educator and minister named Isaiah H. Dickerson, created the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association, which grew out of the advocacy created by Vaughn’s campaign for reparations.

As secretary, then leader of the organization, House traveled extensively in former slave states preaching the gospel of reparations. By the early 1900s, her association had grown to about 300,000 members. But her work was thwarted by White people—government officials and constituents alike—threatened by any attempt to elevate Black people.

Meanwhile, influential Black leaders of the time, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, largely ignored the reparations movement, focusing instead on their own ideas to advance the race—higher learning and pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps, respectively.

In 1915, politician and lawyer Cornelius J. Jones filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Treasury for $68 million in compensatory reparations. Jones argued that, “through a federal tax placed on raw cotton, the federal government had benefited financially from the sale of cotton that slave labor had produced,” according to Randall Robinson, author of The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. The case was dismissed because the federal appeals court ruled that the United States could not be sued without its consent, a legal principle known as sovereign immunity.

For 60 years, beginning in the early 1900s, Queen Mother Audley Moore pushed for reparations, co-founding among other organizations the Reparations Committee of Descendants of United States Slaves, which demanded land and recompense for Black people.

Her activism and petition to the United Nations in 1962 led the intergovernmental organization to declare the trans-Atlantic slave trade a crime against humanity at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance, which was held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. Moore died in 1997, just months before her 99th birthday.

Then there was James Forman, a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), who in 1969 delivered his “Black Manifesto” challenging White churches and synagogues, which he believed were complicit in slavery, to pay $500 million in reparations. The money was to go for projects that would benefit Black communities, including a Southern land bank, a Black university, and media networks.

Raymond Jenkins, a Detroit real estate entrepreneur, spent 40 years raising the topic of reparations everywhere he went. Known as “Reparations Ray,” he was the inspiration for House Resolution 40, the reparations bill that the late U.S. Rep. John Conyers first introduced in 1989.

Jenkins was moved by his own trauma from witnessing racial violence including, when he was a child, seeing a White playmate shoot and kill a Black playmate for not calling him “Mister.” Also, he was encouraged by two successful actions in the 1980s. The first was the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1980 order requiring the federal government to pay $122 million to the eight Sioux Indian Tribes in compensation for the illegal seizure of their lands 100 years earlier. The second was in 1988, when Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act, officially apologizing for the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and authorizing $1.25 billion in compensation to 60,000 survivors.

Contrary to what opponents of reparations have argued, the concept is not one of a handout—it is an effort at indemnification.

Education, Litigation and Legislation

Having studied the movement work of those before her, Deadria C. Farmer-Paellmann focused on researching and educating others about the need for reparations. She drew lessons from cases like Jones’ in 1915 and then Cato v. United States in 1995, which too was dismissed because of sovereign immunity, as well as the statute of limitations because it came so long after slavery ended.

Called the Rosa Parks of the reparations litigation movement, Farmer-Paellmann brought a suit in 2003, In Re: African American Descendants’ Slave Litigation, against corporations who earned their wealth through slavery. There were 18 companies in total, including Aetna, Fleetboston, CSX, JPMorgan Chase, New York Life Insurance Co., R.J. Reynolds, and Lehman Brothers.

In a phone interview, Farmer-Paellmann wanted to clarify that she did not lose her case. While parts of it were dismissed, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that she and other plaintiffs whose cases were combined with hers had standing in their consumer fraud and consumer protection law claim. The court maintained that “The injury is the loss incurred by buying something that one wouldn’t have bought had one known the truth about the product.”

“We were successful,” Farmer-Paellmann says adamantly, referring to a Harvard Review article that describes the case with “great precision.” “We just never finished the litigation.”

Farmer-Paellmann says the plaintiffs ran out of money, so they couldn’t pursue the consumer fraud claim, which “still has a great chance of winning.”

“The material compensation is not something that White people can decide.”

She believes the judicial approach against corporations is the most likely to succeed in any case for reparations. And, she says, there’s another claim that has never been argued before a court of law: genocide. She believes it has a greater chance of success than even HR 40.

“What I would love to see is they create a private right of action within the Proxmire Act,” she said, referring to the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987. This, she says, cannot be dismissed by claims of sovereign immunity. “It allows for the kinds of conditions that we suffer from the vestiges of slavery,” referencing, for example, the destruction of an ethnic and national identity.

Meanwhile, reparations proponents like Ron Daniels of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century have been working on a reparations action plan, with the hope that HR 40 will be made law.

While the bill has never been debated, in 2017, he points out, HR 40 went from being a “study bill,” charged with creating a commission to study the need for reparations, to a “remedy bill,” calling for the creation of a commission to develop proposals for and implement reparations.

A decadeslong advocate for reparations and Black self-determination, Daniels points to the work of the National African American Reparations Commission, of which he’s a member. The Commission created a 10-Point Reparations Program for people of African descent in the United States, similar to that of the Caribbean Reparations Commission’s Ten Point Action Plan.

The U.S. program includes a formal apology and establishment of an African Holocaust Institute; the right of repatriation; the right to land for social and economic development; resources for health, wellness, and healing of Black families and communities; education for community development and empowerment; affordable housing for healthy Black communities and wealth generation; and repairing the damages of the “criminal injustice system.”

The foundation has been laid and the work is being done globally, Daniels says, adding that what is still missing are sufficient resources to support the effort.

There have been actions on multiple levels— individual, municipal, and institutional, with banks like Wachovia, and colleges and universities like Brown and Georgetown and Virginia Theological Seminary acknowledging their role in slavery and the perpetuation of it.

In September, California lawmakers introduced a resolution to investigate what statewide reparations would look like and how best to use them to fix inequities, acknowledging that California had a role in reinforcing slavery in the United States.


Not since the late 19th and early 20th centuries has there been this much momentum around reparations, says David Ragland, director of the nonprofit FOR Truth & Reparations, and co-founder of the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson.

In addition to political attention and increased support for two reparations measures in Congress, the Movement for Black Lives has released a Reparations Now Toolkit to help answer questions about reparations.

And on the weekend marking the fifth anniversary of Mike Brown’s death, Aug. 9, I attended the national grassroots reparations convening in Ferguson, Missouri, hosted by FOR Truth & Reparations and the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson.

About 20 organizations participated in the discussion on healing as a means of reparations. Ragland and other panelists explained that reparations aren’t just about monetary compensation. Black folks need to heal from the generations of trauma we’ve endured from slavery and the vestiges thereof.

This healing must be done internally, says Hakim Williams, associate professor and interim chair of Africana Studies and director of Peace and Justice Studies at Gettysburg College.

Williams, one of the panelists, said that for him the main part of reparations discourse needs to center on how we stop injuring ourselves and others and start to rebuild our communities through our own lens. “Now, that’s not to say it’s mutually exclusive from holding former colonizers accountable for the harm that they have rendered,” he said. “But while we are arguing for that, and while we’re waiting for that, we need to do our own healing.”

“Whether we ever get a dime. We should take on that responsibility.”

If that healing doesn’t happen, Williams says, “no amount of money that comes will be helpful.”

In fact, he adds, “I think the class chasms might widen if [we don’t] have a vision of what to do with that money. We don’t want to be just another capitalist cog in the global capitalist economy … we want to re-envision our society.”

Christine Schmidt, a New York-based psychotherapist and clinical consultant, asked the question: “What specifically do Black people want or need for White people to do?”

Afterward, I spoke with Schmidt, who is White. “I think that’s something that must be determined by the people who are harmed. What do people who have been harmed need to heal?” she said. “The material compensation is not something that White people can decide.”

That, she said, would be charity—not reparations.

“I think that we have to be there and prepared and willing to offer and say that this is our responsibility,” she continued. “[And] I think that the responsibility is both material, and psychological and emotional. But it’s also really, really important that we are not going to be in the lead, that we need to be actively engaged responders.”

Her question was reminiscent of the one Sherman asked the 20 pastors 154 years ago: What did they need to take care of themselves?

Their response then was twofold.

Separation: land of their own, separate from the control of Whites; and Assimilation: the freedom to exist among Whites without the threat of harm.

In so many ways, those desires have not changed. Resources and the space to heal are necessary for both.


The consensus of the many people I’ve talked to about reparations is that no dollar amount  can make up for the harm of slavery and the exploitation and oppression of Black people that followed. However, the trillions owed are a start, and can be disbursed in a number of ways.

Proponents of reparations have adopted a multifaceted understanding of them as defined by the United Nations. It includes restitution, or return of what was stolen; rehabilitation, mental and physical health support; compensation, both monetary and resource-based, which includes a meaningful transfer of wealth; satisfaction, acknowledgement of guilt, apology, and memorial; and guarantees of non-repeat. Or, as Ragland explains: “Don’t do that shit again.”

Jywanza, who also attended the convening in Ferguson, said she sees value in collaborating with institutions already doing this work.

“There’s no need for us to be divided and conquered,” she says. “Let’s call everyone (economists, social scientists, psychologists, activists) together and see what full repair can look like in our communities. Whether we ever get a dime. We should take on that responsibility.”