Student View
Article

Enslaved African Americans on a South Carolina plantation, 1862

Making Amends for Slavery?

More than 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the federal government is debating what, if anything, it owes to the descendants of enslaved people

Soon after the Civil War officially ended on April 9, 1865, Union Armies marched through the former Confederacy to ensure that millions of people enslaved in the South were free, at least in principle.

Ever since then, the question of whether to compensate those who had been enslaved, or their descendants, has hung over the United States. The federal government originally set aside land to divide among newly freed black people—a promise later known as “40 acres and a mule.” After the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, however, his successor, President Andrew Johnson, rescinded the order, giving nothing to those who had been enslaved.

The debate over reparations for African Americans has continued over the centuries, but the idea has recently started gaining momentum—though
it’s still highly controversial. A reparations bill that’s been introduced in Congress every year since 1989 finally got a hearing in 2019, and some colleges and institutions that once benefited from slavery have begun to offer financial benefits to descendants of enslaved people.

The federal government has never formally apologized for slavery. In 2008, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that acknowledged the “injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow.” And in 2009, the Senate passed a similar apology. But no single bill has made it through both houses of Congress and to the president’s desk for a signature.

The Civil War officially ended on April 9, 1865. Soon after, Union Armies marched through the former Confederacy. They aimed to ensure that millions of people enslaved in the South were free, at least in principle.

Ever since then, the United States has grappled with whether to pay those who had been enslaved, or their descendants. That question has remained unresolved. The federal government originally set aside land to divide among newly freed black people. That promise later became known as “40 acres and a mule.” But then President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. His successor, President Andrew Johnson, revoked the order. That meant those who had been enslaved got nothing.

The debate over reparations for African Americans has continued over the centuries. Though it’s still highly controversial, the idea has recently started gaining momentum. A reparations bill has been introduced in Congress every year since 1989. It finally got a hearing in 2019. And some colleges and institutions that once benefited from slavery have begun to offer financial benefits to descendants of enslaved people.

The federal government has never formally apologized for slavery. In 2008, the House of Representatives passed a resolution that acknowledged the “injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery and Jim Crow.” And in 2009, the Senate passed a similar apology. But no single bill has made it through both houses of Congress and to the president’s desk for a signature.

Opponents of reparations—which includes a majority of Americans, according to most recent polls—argue that the country has already done away with the racial injustices of the past and that reparations, in any case, would be too complicated. But supporters argue that slave labor helped build the American economy, creating vast wealth that most African Americans have never shared in.

The argument for reparations may be gaining traction now because of today’s technology, says William A. Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University and a leading scholar on reparations. Social media has called attention to police violence against unarmed black people, he says, and many activists have used their online platforms to advocate for reparations. Others say the nation has waited too long already and must make amends.

“There’s been a realization that more is needed to move us toward a more just society,” says Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. “The country cannot progress as long as the stain of segregation and slavery still hangs over us.”

A majority of Americans oppose reparations, according to most recent polls. Those against it argue that the country has already done away with the racial injustices of the past. They also note that reparations, in any case, would be too complicated. But supporters argue that slave labor helped build the American economy. They say that slavery created vast wealth that most African Americans have never shared in.

The argument for reparations may be gaining traction now because of today’s technology, says William A. Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University and a leading scholar on reparations. Social media has called attention to police violence against unarmed black people, he says. And many activists have used their online platforms to advocate for reparations. Others say the nation has waited too long already and must make amends.

“There’s been a realization that more is needed to move us toward a more just society,” says Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. “The country cannot progress as long as the stain of segregation and slavery still hangs over us.”

Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Students at Georgetown University advocate for reparations.

Who Would Qualify?

The idea of compensating those who have suffered injustice at the hands of the government is nothing new. But there’s no exact template to follow when it comes to reparations—although certain groups of Americans have gotten them before (seeWho Has Received Reparations?” below). In fact, while enslaved people never got reparations, some slaveowners did, a long time ago. In 1862, President Lincoln signed a bill that paid slaveowners in Washington, D.C., who were loyal to the Union up to $300 for every enslaved person they freed.

The situation would be complicated for African Americans seeking reparations today. About 47 million Americans identified as black or African American in the last census; the majority are descended from those who were enslaved in the U.S., but others are more recent migrants from Africa or elsewhere, making it harder to narrow down who would qualify.

The idea of paying those who have suffered injustice at the hands of the government is nothing new. Certain groups of Americans have gotten reparations before. Still, there’s no exact template to follow (seeWho Has Received Reparations?” below).

In fact, while enslaved people never got reparations, some slaveowners did, a long time ago. In 1862, President Lincoln signed a bill that paid slaveowners in Washington, D.C., who were loyal to the Union. They received up to $300 for every enslaved person they freed.

The situation would be complex for African Americans seeking reparations today. About 47 million Americans identified as black or African American in the last census. The majority of them are descended from those who were enslaved in the U.S. But others are more recent migrants from Africa or elsewhere. That makes it harder to narrow down who would qualify.

The federal government has never formally apologized  for slavery.

Darity suggests two requirements for reparations: having at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S. and having identified oneself as African American on a legal document for at least a decade before the approval of any reparations. The 10-year rule, he says, would help screen out anyone trying to cash in. He estimates that roughly 30 million Americans might be eligible.

Many advocates of reparations aren’t necessarily looking for the government to write checks. Instead, they say, the government could offer assistance to address the effects of slavery and racially discriminatory federal policies that have resulted in a huge wealth gap between white and black people. Research shows, for example, that the median white family has 41 times more wealth than the median African American family. And while black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they hold less than 3 percent of the country’s wealth, according to the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity.

To fix the racial wealth gap, advocates say they’d like the government to provide things like zero-interest homeowner loans, free college tuition, and community development to spur the growth of black-owned businesses.

Darity suggests two requirements for reparations. First, those who qualify should have at least one ancestor who was enslaved in the U.S. Second, they must have identified as African American on a legal document for at least a decade before the approval of any reparations. The 10-year rule, he says, would help screen out anyone trying to cash in. He estimates that roughly 30 million Americans might be eligible.

Many advocates of reparations aren’t exactly looking for the government to write checks. Instead, they say, the government could offer assistance to address the effects of slavery and racially discriminatory federal policies. In doing so, that could begin to close the huge wealth gap between white and black people. For example, research shows that the median white family has 41 times more wealth than the median African American family. And while black people make up 13 percent of the U.S. population, they hold less than 3 percent of the country’s wealth, according to the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity.

Advocates say that the government can fix the racial wealth gap. They say that could be achieved through things like zero-interest homeowner loans, free college tuition, and community development to spur the growth of black-owned businesses.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Debate in Congress

For the past three decades, lawmakers in the House of Representatives have repeatedly introduced a bill called H.R. 40 (named for the 40-acres promise) which, if passed, would allow an appointed group to study the effects of slavery and make recommendations to Congress concerning “any form of apology and compensation” to descendants of enslaved people.

The bill was ignored for 30 years, but in 2019, an impassioned hearing about it made headlines. Still, even if the bill were to make it through the House, it would face opposition in the Senate.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said before the hearing. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.”

For the past three decades, lawmakers in the House of Representatives have repeatedly introduced a bill called H.R. 40. It was named for the 40-acres promise. If passed, the bill would allow an appointed group to study the effects of slavery. That group would also make recommendations to Congress about “any form of apology and compensation” to descendants of enslaved people.

The bill was ignored for 30 years. But in 2019, an impassioned hearing about it made headlines. Still, even if the bill were to make it through the House, it would face opposition in the Senate.

“I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago, for whom none of us currently living are responsible, is a good idea,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said before the hearing. “We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.”

Some witnesses at the hearing agreed with McConnell. Burgess Owens, a retired football player who is African American, argued that black people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

“We’ve become successful like no other because of this great opportunity to live the American dream,” Owens said. “Let’s not steal that from our kids by telling them they can’t do it.”

But those comments earned sharp criticism from others, including author Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has argued that African Americans have been exploited by nearly every American institution.

“This is about more than slavery; this isn’t about litigating things that happened 150 years ago,” Coates says. “There are people who are alive today who are impacted by policies that came out of slavery.”

A 2019 survey found that 52 percent of Americans believe the government doesn’t spend enough money to improve the conditions of African Americans—yet many still aren’t supportive of reparations. Only three in 10 Americans said the government is obligated to make up for past racial discrimination.

Even though H.R. 40 is unlikely to pass anytime soon, some experts say the fact that the country is even talking about the bill is a sign of progress.

“We have not had a conversation about reparations on this scale or level since the Reconstruction Era,” Darity, the reparations expert, says. “I am more optimistic than I have ever been in my life about the prospect of the enactment of a reparations program that is comprehensive and transformative.”

Some witnesses at the House hearing agreed with McConnell. That included Burgess Owens, a retired football player who is African American. He argued that black people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.

“We’ve become successful like no other because of this great opportunity to live the American dream,” Owens said. “Let’s not steal that from our kids by telling them they can’t do it.”

But those comments earned sharp criticism from others. That included author Ta-Nehisi Coates. He has argued that nearly every American institution has taken advantage of African Americans.

“This is about more than slavery; this isn’t about litigating things that happened 150 years ago,” Coates says. “There are people who are alive today who are impacted by policies that came out of slavery.”

A 2019 survey found that 52 percent of Americans believe the government doesn’t spend enough money to improve the conditions of African Americans. Still, many aren’t supportive of reparations. Only 3 in 10 Americans said making up for past racial discrimination is the responsibility of the government.

The H.R. 40 bill is unlikely to pass anytime soon. Despite that, some experts say the fact that the country is even talking about the bill is a sign of progress.

“We have not had a conversation about reparations on this scale or level since the Reconstruction Era,” Darity, the reparations expert, says. “I am more optimistic than I have ever been in my life about the prospect of the enactment of a reparations program that is comprehensive and transformative.”

Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images

‘The First Step’

While the government debates what to do, some schools that benefited from the slave trade are taking matters into their own hands. Last fall, the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, announced it was creating a $1.7 million fund for activities that “promote justice and inclusion” to make up for the fact that the school once used enslaved labor. A month later, Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, pledged $27 million for scholarships and initiatives to address its historical ties to slavery.

While the government debates what to do, some schools that benefited from the slave trade are taking matters into their own hands. Last fall, the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, announced it was creating a $1.7 million fund for activities that “promote justice and inclusion” to make up for the fact that the school once used enslaved labor. A month later, Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey, pledged $27 million for scholarships and initiatives to address its historical ties to slavery.

‘Slavery can never be quantified.’

And at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., young people are leading the fight for reparations. Last spring, students voted to increase each person’s tuition by $27.20 per semester, raising roughly $380,000 each year to benefit descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold by the school in 1838 to keep it afloat. Georgetown, however, ultimately decided to raise $400,000 a year on its own to benefit the descendants, rather than raising fees on students.

The school’s decision upset many of the young people on campus, as the fund had been intended to cultivate a positive relationship between students and the descendants of those who were sold in 1838, instead of just offering charity.

Still, efforts to make things right are crucial, students say.

“Slavery can never be quantified,” says junior Maya Moretta. “You can never actually pay back for that legacy, but what you can do is try. You can never get anywhere without the first step.”

And at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., young people are leading the fight for reparations. Last spring, students voted to increase each person’s tuition by $27.20 per semester. That increase would raise roughly $380,000 each year to benefit descendants of 272 enslaved people who were sold by the school in 1838 to keep it afloat. But Georgetown ultimately decided not to raise fees on students. Instead, the university moved to raise $400,000 a year on its own to benefit the descendants.

The school’s decision upset many of the young people on campus. The fund wasn’t meant to just offer charity. It was supposed to help build a positive relationship between students and the descendants of those who were sold in 1838.

Still, efforts to make things right are crucial, students say.

“Slavery can never be quantified,” says junior Maya Moretta. “You can never actually pay back for that legacy, but what you can do is try. You can never get anywhere without the first step.” •

With additional reporting by Patricia Cohen, Adeel Hassan, Jack Healy, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times.

With additional reporting by Patricia Cohen, Adeel Hassan, Jack Healy, and Sheryl Gay Stolberg of The New York Times.

Bettmann/Getty Images

President Harry Truman signs the bill to compensate Native Americans in 1946.

Who Has Received Reparations?

The government has provided compensation to some groups in the past

Slaveholders
To reduce Union slaveowners’ financial loss during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln authorized payments of up to $300 for each enslaved person who was freed in the District of Columbia. The largest payout received by a slaveholder was $18,000 (about $500,000 in today’s dollars) for 69 enslaved people.

Native Americans
Following World War II, Congress paid tribes about $1.3 billion—the equivalent of less than $1,000 for each Native American in the U.S.—for land that had been seized during the first century and a half of the nation’s existence. The money went into trust accounts, as the government believed Native Americans weren’t competent enough to handle it on their own.

Japanese Americans
In 1948, the government paid $37 million to 26,000 Japanese Americans who had been sent to internment camps during World War II. And in 1988, Congress gave an apology and $20,000 to each survivor.

Massacre Survivors
More than 70 years after a mob attacked black residents in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923, the state handed out $2 million to survivors. Although the victims did not receive much money, many appreciated that the government acknowledged its failure to prevent racist violence.

Slaveholders
To reduce Union slaveowners’ financial loss during the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln authorized payments of up to $300 for each enslaved person who was freed in the District of Columbia. The largest payout received by a slaveholder was $18,000 (about $500,000 in today’s dollars) for 69 enslaved people.

Native Americans
Following World War II, Congress paid tribes about $1.3 billion—the equivalent of less than $1,000 for each Native American in the U.S.—for land that had been seized during the first century and a half of the nation’s existence. The money went into trust accounts, as the government believed Native Americans weren’t competent enough to handle it on their own.

Japanese Americans
In 1948, the government paid $37 million to 26,000 Japanese Americans who had been sent to internment camps during World War II. And in 1988, Congress gave an apology and $20,000 to each survivor.

Massacre Survivors
More than 70 years after a mob attacked black residents in Rosewood, Florida, in 1923, the state handed out $2 million to survivors. Although the victims did not receive much money, many appreciated that the government acknowledged its failure to prevent racist violence.