Reparations for slavery refers to the idea of compensating the victims of African slavery and their descendants for the abuses suffered under U.S. law. The idea of reparations for the victims of African slavery in America emerged as early as the colonial era, but took on particular relevance after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. While some individual former slaves and their descendants have received reparations of some type, the vast majority have not, owing to the absence of any lasting or comprehensive federal policy. This absence keeps this controversial topic relevant, as advocates, activists, and public leaders continue to call for the adoption of some form of reparations, both in compensation for slavery, and for the injustices visited upon succeeding generations of Black Americans. Because this controversial topic remains a largely unsettled matter, reparations is also a popular subject for a persuasive essay.
*Disambiguation: Reparations, in the case of the current controversial topic, refers largely to reparations for Black Americans in recompense for slavery and subsequent institutional racial injustices such as the segregative Jim Crow laws and ongoing claims of police brutality. In the past, America has produced reparations, such as for certain Native American groups and for Japanese Americans who were forcibly relocated into internment camps during World War II. The focus of the present controversial topic, however, is the matter which generates the greatest debate today—reparations for the victims of the African slave trade and their descendants.
The debate topic over reparations today divides, on one side:
Regardless of the side that one takes in this debate, the matter is quite complex. Technical questions abound, including who should receive reparations, who should pay for reparations, the extent to which ongoing racial injustices beyond slavery should be considered, and the practical concerns over how we can accurately determine the value of the labor, livelihood, freedom, property, and opportunity which slavery denied to Black Americans. According to Wikipedia, “The estimates of the monetary value of stolen slave labor and subsequent discrimination vary ‘from an outrageously low $3.2 million to $4.7 billion,’ and to as much as $12 trillion.”
This underscores not just the philosophical and legal complexity of this issue, but also its sheer practical complexity. In spite of these complexities, both legal tradition and the concept of transitional justice establish a basis for the argument in favor of reparations. In the legal context, “reparation is replenishment of a previously inflicted loss by the criminal to the victim. Monetary restitution is a common form of reparation.”
The approach above applies to compensation for individual crimes. On a broader scale, the philosophy of transitional justice applies to those who have been victimized by institutionalized abuses. In such circumstances, “reparations are measures taken by the state to redress gross and systematic violations of human rights law or humanitarian law through the administration of some form of compensation or restitution to the victims. Of all the mechanisms of transitional justice, reparations are unique because they directly address the situation of the victims. Reparations, if well designed, acknowledge victims’ suffering, offer measures of redress, as well as some form of compensation for the violations suffered.”
This last condition is noteworthy because, in the discourse over reparations and slavery, as well as long-standing racial inequalities, reparations have been proposed in a number forms including or in lieu of direct financial compensation. Based on the understanding that slavery and segregation have created lasting effects that continue to afflict Black communities in the United States, some have proposed reparations in the form of community development, educational initiatives, and the creation of greater opportunity for younger members of these communities.
The issue of reparations is deeply entwined with the movement toward abolition in the United States. The issue of slavery weighed heavily on the conscience of some Founding Fathers, who recognized that holding slaves was contrary to the constitutional philosophies that gave rise to the Revolutionary War, including notions of individual liberty and the constructs of a free market economy. These views converged with the Puritan belief that slavery was morally wrong.
These views brought legal prohibition against slavery in each Northern state over the course of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. Likewise, importing slaves to the United States was made illegal on the federal level in 1808. This marked the end of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, even as the plantation system persisted in the American South. This contrast made inevitable the abolitionist movement, which applied pressure on the South to emancipate all slaves, and pushed for prohibition against slavery in the American territories which were gradually opening up through Western expansion. Within this abolitionist movement, the movement toward reparations was also born.
That said, the history of reparations for slavery (if not the actual movement) in the United States actually predates the abolition movement. During the American War for Independence, Warner Mifflin, a Delaware planter from a slave-holding family of Virginia Quakers, became both an early abolitionist and one of the first advocates for reparations. As early as 1778, Mifflin urged his fellow Quakers to renounce slavery and compensate their freed slaves with both cash payments and share-cropping arrangements. He helped to foster support for the practice among Quakers, who came to view reparations both as a practical recompense and as a way of atoning for holding slaves. Historian Gary B. Nash has dubbed Warner Mifflin “the father of American reparationism.” It is noteworthy that in this case, all reparations were voluntary and not enforced by law.
As the abolition movement gained momentum, and the United States inched closer to its Civil War, the idea of reparations also gained ground. After John Brown’s landmark raid on Harper’s Ferry in protest of slavery, and his subsequent execution, a Scottish-born anti-slavery activist and journalist named James Redpath released Brown’s first biography. In it, the author said that Brown, “was not merely an emancipationist, but a reparationist. He believed, not only that the crime of slavery should be abolished, but that reparation should be made for the wrongs that had been done to the slave. What he believed, he practiced. On this occasion [Missouri raid, 1859], after telling the slaves that they were free, he asked them how much their services had been worth, and—having been answered—proceeded to take property to the amount thus due to the negroes.”
While the concept of enforced reparations gained ground among abolitionists, this would naturally be preconditioned only by emancipation. Thus, only the ensuing Civil War (April 12, 1861), Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation (January 1, 1863), and the war’s resolution (May 9, 1865) could bring about a meaningful push toward reparations.
The end of the Civil War also meant a formal end to slavery and, under President Lincoln, a process of reconciliation and Southern Reconstruction. During the immediate aftermath of the War, a devastated South found itself in a process of rebuilding as well as establishing, for the first time, an economy absent slave labor. Tensions over the bloody war were far from over, and the political dynamics during the era of reconstruction proved as much. Southern Democrats remained embittered by their defeat and unrepentant over their now outlawed slaveholding practices, while Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans widely supported emancipation.
A segment of the Republican party—often identified as Radical Republicans and largely concentrated in Northern states—called for aggressive reforms on behalf of freed slaves. To this end, Radical Republicans supported a direct form of reparations and proposed that confederate farm lands be turned over to the slaves that once worked them.
In 1865, one form of this proposal was actually drafted into law when Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15. On January 16, General Sherman declared that “The islands from Charleston south, the abandoned rice-fields along the rivers for thirty miles back from the sea, and the country bordering the Saint Johns River, Fla., are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the BLACKS now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”
This order granted 400,000 acres of Confederate lands to an estimated 18,000 freed slaves and other Black people living in the South. Dividing the land into 40 acre parcels, the Special Field Orders gave coinage to the phrase “40 Acres and a Mule” as shorthand for reparations that freed slaves were not only promised but actually given.
The restitution was only temporary, however. On April 14, 1865, Confederate sympathizer and prominent stage actor John Wilkes Booth (with the help of 8 subsequently-convicted co-conspirators) assassinated President Lincoln. This placed Vice President Andrew Johnson—a Southern Democrat who had remained loyal to the Union—in the presidency. In spite of his loyalty to the Union, Johnson proved far more sympathetic to the plight of the Confederacy, particularly on the issue of emancipation.
Upon assuming the presidency, Johnson reversed Sherman’s order. The freed slaves were removed from the land, which was then returned to its prior owners. Many calls for reparations since have focused on fulfilling the broken promise made through Special Field Orders, No. 15, if not directly, at least in spirit.
In 1867, U.S. Rep Thaddeus Stevens—a notable Radical Republican—sponsored a bill to have the land returned to the freed slaves, but this bill was defeated. The period of reconstruction gradually drew to an end as the former generals of the Confederate army returned to their states and assumed seats of governance. In the interest of preserving the racial hierarchy which shaped the South before the Civil War, states throughout the former Confederacy ratified “Black Codes,” legal conditions forcing racial segregation. These codes became known broadly as the Jim Crow laws, and they effectively embedded the racial inequalities established during slavery into politics, policing, housing, labor, use of public space, transportation, and more.
This period also gave rise to the Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group that carried out terror attacks, lynchings, and murders against Black families and their sympathizers. The Klan’s objective was to provide grassroots support for more official efforts aimed at enforcing segregation and ensuring the preservation of the Southern racial hierarchy.
While the end of reconstruction also brought about the end to any real discourse on a federal reparations policy, one case is worthy of consideration. Henrietta Wood was born into slavery in Kentucky, sold as a teenager to a French man named William Cirode, and in 1848, was registered by Cirode’s wife as free in the state of Ohio.
Five years later, Cirode’s daughter and son-in-law conspired to kidnap Wood. They hired a sheriff named Zebulon Ward to carry out the abduction, and sold Wood back into slavery on the Mississippi plantation of Gerard Brandon.
As the Civil War ended, and the Union Army drew closer, Brandon fled with his slaves to Texas. Wood remained in slavery until 1869, four years after the conclusion of the Civil War.
Returning to Cincinnati, Wood sued Zebulon Ward in 1870 for violating her legally won freedom. The ensuing 1878 trial, Wood v. Ward, resulted in a jury award of $2,500. This was far less than the $20,000 she sought, but is roughly equivalent to $65,000 today, and as such, is the largest sum of compensation ever given for slavery reparations through legal settlement. It would not, however, constitute a precedent by which other freed slaves would pursue reparations, nor did it appear to provide an impetus for reparations based on systemic wrongs against former slaves and their descendants.
Though no formal federal reparations have been made for slavery since General Sherman’s field orders, the United States has used reparations in compensation for systemic abuses. Each of these is an instance in which the federal government has formally acknowledged wrongdoing, and in some instances, in which the government has compensated the victims and/or their descendants:
These gestures suggest the scope of possible remedies offered as a form (or in place) of reparations for institutional abuses. In limited scope, some such remedies have also been applied to institutionalized abuses of Black Americans:
Each of the precedents above has contributed to an increasingly visible push for and further reaching conception of reparations for slavery. In 2008, Congress formally issued a Resolution which “(A) acknowledges the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow laws; (B) apologizes to African-Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow laws; and (C) expresses its recommitment to the principle that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and calls on all people of the United States to work toward eliminating racial prejudices, injustices, and discrimination from our society.”
The apology, in formally acknowledging the systemic crimes both of slavery and Jim Crow, would give grounding to subsequent calls for reparations. Beyond this apology, starting in 1989, the late Michigan Representative John Conyers introduced a bill to Congress every single year calling for a deeper study of the reparations issue. This bill failed to gain traction at any point prior to Conyers departure from the House of Representatives in 2017. Conyers died in the fall of 2019, but not before his bill gained new life.
On January 3, 2019, Texas Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D) introduced H.R. 40—Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act—to the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill—symbolically named in reference to “40 acres and a mule”—marks the most current and prominent effort to procure reparations for systemic abuses that include slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, police brutality and more.
The introduction of this bill helped to make reparations a notable topic of conversation during the 2020 Democratic primary, where several notable candidates endorsed reparations, especially in light of catalyzing events such as the police killing of George Floyd, the resulting Black Lives Matter-led protests, and outsized impact of the COVID crisis on communities of color. Reparations are opposed almost uniformly by the current leaders of the Republican party, a viewpoint best represented by Repulican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who proclaimed on the subject that reparations are impractical because “none of us currently living are responsible” for slavery.
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of reparations for slavery in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Our Rankings produced a list of advocates, activists, and public leaders in both the U.S. and U.K. who have taken a role in calling for reparations for slavery. Our analytics also included a number of critics or opponents of reparations for slavery, including at least one entry in the Top Ten below. The list was vetted to exclude heads of state and pop culture figures without a direct role in the debate.
|8||James H. Conyers|
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books which touch on the topic of reparations for slavery in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is composed of texts by vocal advocates for reparations, those by historians which explore the practical history of reparations, and those which investigate the real and lasting impacts of slavery in the United States.
|1||Between the World and Me|
|2||America in the King Years|
|3||The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America|
|4||How Europe Underdeveloped Africa|
|5||Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome|
|6||Times Guide to the House of Commons|
|7||Racism without Racists|
|8||The Tyranny of Guilt|
|9||The Tears of the White Man|
|10||The Audacity of Hope|
The reparations controversy has gained visibility over the last several years as the United States has confronted another period of racial reckoning. With the police killing of George Floyd, and racial tensions bubbling over into nationwide protests during the summer of 2020, the conversation over reparations has come to include a far-reaching set of systemic crimes and an array of proposals for redressing these crimes.
However, just as tensions persist over broader issues of race in the United States, views on reparations remain sharply divided across racial and political lines. According to a 2020 poll from the Washington Post, the majority of Americans, at a rate of 63%, don’t believe that the descendants of slaves should be given financial compensation. However, a closer look shows that race plays a major role in one’s viewpoint. Accordingly, while 75% of white Americans oppose reparations, 82% of Black Americans support paid reparations.
It’s also worth noting that regional, demographic, and ideological shifts in party identification have reversed the relative positions of the Republican and Democratic parties. While the Republicans of the post-Civil War period were concentrated in the North and fought in favor of emancipation and reparations, the seats of power for today’s Republican party are concentrated in the South, have more direct historical connections to slave-holding ancestors, and are broadly opposed to reparations. By contrast, the former party of Southern Democrats which fought to preserve slavery and subsequently instituted Southern Black Codes was essentially extinguished by the Civl Rights Act of 1964 which dismantled Jim Crow. Today, the seats of power for the Democratic Party are largely concentrated in the North, have been more sympathetic to the causes of the Civil Rights movement and, as such, are more likely today to support or push legislation for reparations.
Both the racial and political divides within this issue will figure prominently into the battle around H.R. 40 or any further policy initiatives around reparations.Back to Top
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate-and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions-we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of reparations, this requires us to consider the key terms-“reparations,” “black reparations,” and “reparations for slavery,” as well as key groups who have advocated prominently for reparations including the “NAACP” and the “Republic of New Africa.” And because the issue of reparations is so closely tied to the movements toward abolition and emancipation, one of the best ways to frame this issue is to spotlight historical influencers who fell on either side of the battle over emancipation. Those supporting emancipation and reparations included the “Radical Republicans” and those who opposed these forces included the “Ku Klux Klan,” “Southern Democrats,” and “Segregationists.” By extension of their activities in opposition to emancipation and reconstruction, these groups also stood in stark opposition to reparations.
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the reparations issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
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Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
The basic terminology driving this controversy, reparations refers to compensation awarded to the victims of systemic human rights abuses. Influencers in this subject area include activists, attorneys, and academics who have advocated for reparations as a remedy for Black slavery in the U.S.
In specific reference to the push for compensation to the victims of slavery and their descendants, this search term yielded a set of influencers including activists and civil rights advocates, as well as economists and researchers.
Specific use of this terminology led to a group of influencers from directly within the periods of abolition, emancipation, and reconstruction. These figures played varying important roles in laying the groundwork for arguments in favor of reparations.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was among the first, and remains among the most notable, legal advocacy groups pushing for the interests of Black Americans. Among the numerous fronts where it wages this fight, the NAACP is a proponent of reparations, and a number of its prominent leaders past and present have organized and written in favor of reparations.
The Republic of New Afrika was a black nationalist organization which fought to advance Black Civil Rights and openly called for reparations over slavery and Jim Crow.
The progressive wing of the Party of Lincoln, Radical Republicans were a group of office-holders who pushed aggressively for reforms to both improve opportunities and promote recompense for freed slaves. Reparations were a major part of the Radical Republican platform. Key influencers here would be among the most visible post-war advocates for reparations.
A group of white supremacists who began organizing following the end of the Civil War, they pursued an agenda of terror against recently-freed slaves. Though the Klan was a grassroots organization that permeated the former confederacy, it played a prominent role in helping to make Jim Crow a reality. Often, the Klan carried out attacks, lynchings, and murders without fear of reprisal. Its tactics helped initiate the period of segregation that ensued for the next century. Influencers here include notable leaders of this terror group.
In direct opposition to Radical Republicans, Southern Democrats were largely the former leaders and generals of the Confederacy. Their loyalty was largely to a Southern way of life which included slavery. Though slavery had been banished by the Emancipation Proclamation, the Southern Democrats effectively reversed reparations such as those ordered by General Sherman, resisted the calls for reparations from Radical Republicans, and ultimately presided over a segregated South until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. At that juncture, the Southern Democrats effectively disbanded, leading party leaders like Strom Thurmond to switch allegiances and establish the modern-day Republican Party.
While slavery was ended, Jim Crow laws made segregation a reality in the South for a century. The state and municipal governments in the former states of the Confederacy institutionalized racial inequality in their schools, restaurants, public restrooms, modes of transportation, and every other aspect of public life. Their actions would give rise to a whole new range of systemic abuses which advocates of reparations believe must be addressed. Influencers include those who played a role in instituting and protecting Jim Crow in the South.
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