The Long History of American Slavery ReparationsRoundup
tags: economic history, slavery, racism, African American history, reparations
Prof. Sinha is the James L. and Shirley A. Draper Chair in American History at the University of Connecticut. Her books include “The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition” (Yale University Press) and “The Counterrevolution of Slavery” (University of North Carolina Press).
During the colonial era, it was customary for masters to grant “freedom dues” to indentured servants who had completed their fixed term of service. They were given land at times but at the very least tools and livestock to help begin their new lives in freedom. When former slaves demanded land after the Civil War, they were harking back to this longtime custom, which the rest of the country (with the exception of the abolitionists) had long forgotten. Since the Reconstruction era, the reneged-upon promise of reparations—recompense to African-Americans for centuries of enslavement and racial oppression—has continued to fester like an open sore on the nation’s body politic.
Many Americans dismiss the idea of reparations as economically impractical, legally impossible and politically inflammatory. In the 20th century, however, several countries—most prominently postwar Germany but also the U.S.—have offered significant reparations for past atrocities. Though the issue of reparations for slavery never really died down, especially among African-Americans, the cause was given new life in 2014 by the author Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose landmark essay “The Case for Reparations” in the Atlantic has shaped the current debate on redress not just for enslavement but for a century of systematic racial discrimination sanctioned by the state.
The earliest calls for reparations came from the enslaved and those who objected to the permanent and hereditary nature of racial slavery in the English colonies. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker faith, called for freeing slaves after a term of service and, as early as 1672, argued that they should be compensated for their labor and not sent off “empty handed.” In the 18th century, the Quakers became the first Christian denomination to ban slave-trading and slaveholding among its members, and they were overrepresented in the Revolutionary-era abolition movement. Many heeded Fox’s injunction and gave their freed slaves material support for their new lives.
In the New England colonies, which became the hotbed of abolitionism in the 19th century, slaves led the way in demanding redress from the government. An extraordinary 1774 petition by a group of black slaves addressed to the Massachusetts General Court (the state assembly) declared, “Give and grant to us some part of unimproved land, belonging to the province, for a settlement.”
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