Advocates who say black Americans should be compensated for slavery and its Jim Crow aftermath are quietly chalking up victories and gaining momentum.
Fueled by the work of scholars and lawyers, their campaign has morphed in recent years from a fringe-group rallying cry into sophisticated, mainstream movement. Most recently, a pair of churches apologized for their part in the slave trade, and one is studying ways to repay black church members.
The overall issue is hardly settled, even among black Americans: Some say that focusing on slavery shouldn’t be a top priority or that it doesn’t make sense to compensate people generations after a historical wrong.
Yet reparations efforts have led a number of cities and states to approve measures that force businesses to publicize their historical ties to slavery. Several reparations court cases are in progress, and international human rights officials are increasingly spotlighting the issue.
“This matter is growing in significance rather than declining,” said Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor and a leading reparations activist. “It has more vigor and vitality in the 21st century than it’s had in the history of the reparations movement.”
The most recent victories for reparations advocates came in June, when the Moravian Church and the Episcopal Church both apologized for owning slaves and promised to battle current racism.
Episcopalians take point on issue
The Episcopalians also launched a national, yearslong probe into church slavery links and into whether the church should compensate black members. A white church member, Katrina Browne, also screened a documentary focusing on white culpability at the denomination’s national assembly.
The Episcopalians debated slavery and reparations for years before reaching an agreement, said Jayne Oasin, social justice officer for the denomination, who will oversee its work on the issue.
Historically, slavery was an uncomfortable topic for the church. Some Episcopal bishops owned slaves — and the Bible was used to justify the practice, Oasin said.
“Why not (take these steps) 100 years ago?” she said. “Let’s talk about the complicity of the Episcopal Church as one of the institutions of this country who, of course, benefited from slavery.”
Also in June, a North Carolina commission urged the state government to repay the descendants of victims of a violent 1898 campaign by white supremacists to strip blacks of power in Wilmington, N.C. As many as 60 black people died, and thousands were driven from the city.
The commission also recommended state-funded programs to support local black businesses and home ownership.
1921 riot as global rights violation?
The report came weeks after the Organization of American States requested information from the U.S. government about a 1921 race riot in Tulsa, Okla., in which 1,200 homes were burned and as many as 300 black people were killed. An OAS official said the group might pursue the issue as a violation of international human rights.
The modern reparations movement revived an idea that’s been around since emancipation, when black leaders argued that newly freed slaves deserved compensation.
About six years ago, the issue started gaining momentum again. Randall Robinson’s “The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks,” was a best seller; reparations became a central issue at the World Conference on Racism in Durban, South Africa; and California legislators passed the nation’s first law forcing insurance companies that do business with the state to disclose their slavery ties. Illinois passed a similar insurance law in 2003, and the next year Iowa legislators began requesting — but not forcing — the same disclosures.
Several cities — including Chicago, Detroit and Oakland — have laws requiring that all businesses make such disclosures.
For critics, a movement ‘based on a fallacy’
Reparations opponents insist that no living American should have to pay for a practice that ended more than 140 years ago. Plus, programs such as affirmative action and welfare already have compensated for past injustices, said John H. McWhorter, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.
“The reparations movement is based on a fallacy that cripples the thinking on race — the fallacy that what ails black America is a cash problem,” said McWhorter, who is black. “Giving people money will not solve the problems that we have.”
Even so, support is reaching beyond African-Americans and the South.
Katrina Browne, the white Episcopalian filmmaker, is finishing a documentary about her ancestors, the DeWolfs of Bristol, R.I., the biggest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She screened it for Episcopal Church officials at the June convention.
“Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North,” details how the economies of the Northeast and the nation as a whole depended on slaves.
“A lot of white people think they know everything there is to know about slavery — we all agree it was wrong and that’s enough,” Browne said. “But this was the foundation of our country, not some Southern anomaly. We all inherit responsibility.”
She says neither whites nor blacks will heal from slavery until formal hearings expose the full history of slavery and its effects — an effort similar to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission after apartheid collapsed.