On reparations

I’m still stewing over how Britain dealt with its anti-slavery act, and reparations: they paid reparations to its slaveowners. Not to the nearly 1 million people the act freed. No, to the mostly wealthy people — aristocrats and church people alike — who made their fortunes from the work of enslaved people.

I think a lot about reparations.

As the American Civil War ended, a question arose: there were four million freed slaves. How could the government assist them to lives as free citizens? How could they be compensated for the centuries of unspeakable cruelty?

Improbably, it was William Tecumseh Sherman, scourge of the South but no supporter of emancipated Blacks, who came up with what Ron Chernow in his majesterial biography, Grant, called “one of the war’s most innovative measures.”

The federal government had confiscated four hundred thousand acres of land. In mid-January [1865], Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which set aside the Sea Islands and a large strip of territory along the Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida coasts for settlement by landless black families. They would be offered forty-acre plots in self-governing communities. By June, this remarkable experience in reconstruction offered new life to forty thousand former slaves, although the land titles given out had not yet acquired lasting legal power.

That “most progressive order” did not last. As CUNY’s American History Project records:

May 1865
President Andrew Johnson offers amnesty to most Confederates. Under the amnesty plan, southern planters reclaim abandoned lands occupied by freedmen.

September 1865
Representative Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania proposes a bill in Congress that would allow the federal government to confiscate all lands in the former Confederacy owned by slave owners and redistribute the land in 40-acre portions to ex-slaves and poor whites. Few other Congressmen support this bill, however, and it is never even voted on.

Remember when Larry Elder, during his run to become governor of California, opined that it was slaveowners who should get reparations, since their property had been taken away? Had he heard about the British reparations?

If the British government could pay forty percent of its annual budget to slaveowners as compensation for their great loss, the United States can figure out how to repair the damage centuries of slavery did to our Black neighbors.

The Times had a 2019 article on reparations.

A lot of ideas. And there could be, should be more ideas and a plan to make reparations work.

If the British could calculate the worth of each slave and pay their slaveowners compensation for the loss of their “property,” we in the New World can figure out a far saner and far more moral way to repair the damage slavery has done.

Anyone who’s sentient, who’s watching our current politics and society, who’s ever visited Civil War battle sites in the South, knows that one-third of this country is still fighting that war.

Slavery is America’s suppurating wound. There are many suggested forms for reparations. We must do it.

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