Reparations: Part One

The True Value of Some Land and an Animal




"Out of the lands thus confiscated each liberated slave who is a male adult, or the head of a family, shall have assigned to him a homestead of forty acres of land, (with $100 to build a dwelling), which shall be held for them by trustees during their pupilage.”

--Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, speaking to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1867 on behalf of his Slave Reparation Bill

The great abolitionist lawmaker’s bill was, of course, doomed.  But the freedmen and women were aware of efforts to grant them “40 acres and a mule”.  It is much more than idle whimsy to ponder what this modest proposal would have meant to the history and fortunes of Black people in the United States.

It has been 135 years since Stevens’ legislation faded into the realm of folklore.  Today, “Forty acres and a mule” is often treated as a joke, or a kind of historical insult to the newly freed Blacks.  This is unfortunate.  This article argues that, had emancipated slaves been allowed to possess and retain even this pittance of compensation for centuries of free labor, their descendants might now control a much larger share of American social and monetary wealth—proportionately more than that held by a significant section of their white fellow citizens.

Especially in light of the civil litigation approach undertaken by the brilliant, high profile lawyers of the Reparations Coordinating Committee (RCC), it is critical that there be a sustained, democratic discussion of Reparations in all of its aspects among the plaintiffs: each and every African American.

The lawyers are already advancing claims in court.  They need to hear from their clients.

The Genealogy of Oppression

Randall Robinson, founder of Trans-Africa, is credited with assembling the team that is charting the RCC’s legal course. A Harvard Law graduate, Robinson, is author of The Debt, What America Owes to Blacks.  This is an indispensable work of passion and political insight.  Published in 2000, the book accelerated the Reparations issue’s long journey into the mainstream of the Black Agenda. 

Robinson’s powerful book needs to be read.  Then it needs to be reviewed and re-read and re-reviewed at regular intervals, as the struggle that he calls forth evolves.  In one of the final chapters, titled Thoughts About Restitution, he traces the life-paths of five generations of prototypical Black males, to illustrate how the legacies of slavery and its aftermath have shaped today’s conditions.

Robinson’s exercise begins in the present, with “one representative individual whose dead-end crisis in contemporary America symbolizes the plight of millions.” He then takes us back in time with a narration of this individual’s patriarchal history: 

“His great-great-grandfather was born a slave and died a slave.  Great-great-grandfather’s labors enriched not only his white southern owner but also shipbuilders, sailors, rope makers, caulkers, and countless other northern businesses that serviced and benefited from the cotton trade built upon slavery….  He was of course compulsorily illiterate.

“His son, today’s black male’s great-grandfather, was also born into slavery….  He too was illiterate and completely without skills….

“Great-grandfather, like the vast majority of the four million former slaves, received nothing and died penniless in 1902—but not before producing a son who was born in 1890 and later became the first of his line to learn to read….

“Grandfather became a sharecropper on land leased from whites….  The year was 1925….  Grandfather had managed to finish the fifth grade before leaving school to work full time…

“Grandfather’s son, the father of today’s black male, periodically attended segregated schools….  He [became] a middle-aged laborer….

“The father died of heart disease at the age of forty-five, just before the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965….  He was never allowed to cast a vote in his life….

“It is from this condition that today’s black male emerged.”

Our truncating of Robinson’s moving passages does no justice to his prose, which succeeds in evoking the sheer, murderous weight of America’s racial oppression machinery, an instrument of evil that forces each generation to become the unwilling vector of the next generation's misery. 

The present generation is both victim and heir of this horror.  How is it to be compensated, made whole? 

That, of course, is a question for the entire African American people to grapple with.  Wisely, Robinson offers no formula.

However, another kind of exercise can begin to provide a rough measure of the damage done to Black America in the years since Thaddeus Stevens’ Reparations bill went down to defeat.   This exercise begins with, What if?  In that sense, it is no different than the standard employed in American civil law.  The damage done to the families of victims of fatal negligence is assessed, first, by the loss of the deceased’s projected lifetime income.  That is, What if father had lived?

By constructing an alternative, or companion, to Robinson’s historical narrative, we can sketch a plausible picture of what the African American world would look like if the year 1868 had begun with every newly emancipated Black head of household standing behind a mule, plowing his own 40 acres of ground.

 Land, Suffrage, and Peace

This scenario presupposes that the same federal government that enacted Stevens’ legislation would also have enforced its own Reconstruction constitutional amendments, protecting the freedmen’s right to keep the property and vote.

The beneficiary of the Stevens bill would be the great-grandfather of Robinson’s present-day prototypical Black male.  We’ll call the former slave Paul.  Twenty-one years old, he had inherited nothing from his father, who died before Emancipation. 

Paul’s government-deeded 40 acres lay 30 miles west of Charleston, South Carolina.  Most of his neighbors were Black, the majority population of the entire region. Surrounding his plot were others just like it, carved out of the old plantations.  His $100 house suited his extended family just fine. 

Although the vocational assistance promised by the Stevens bill never materialized, the former slaves knew enough about planting to make a simple life for themselves.  Federal troops kept the ex-Confederates in check, allowing Paul and his neighbors enough social space to build the basics of a local economy.  Hard currency circulated at the end of the season, when the cash crops went to market.  Soon, Paul bought a new mule. 

Paul had been reunited with his younger sister Paulette who, being a teenager and female when the plantations were parceled out, hadn’t been qualified for a homestead.  In a few years, she married a man as young and landless as herself, and had children.  Paul took a wife.  By the mid-1880s, the place was getting crowded.

The South’s African American voters had ensured passage of the Blair Education Act, providing federal money for the education of Blacks and whites.  Paul heard that there were integrated classrooms in some parts of the state, although the white minority in the Charleston area was quietly allowed to attend separate schools.  The issue didn’t seem to matter much, since the Black-controlled state legislature made sure that education funds were distributed fairly. 

Paul learned the rudiments of reading from Paulette’s children, who were looking forward to attending one of the small colleges that had sprung up in the region.  Northern whites had started the institutions as literacy centers shortly after the War of Rebellion, but the farmer and artisan classes now largely supported the schools.

In 1885 Paulette, her husband and two of her children joined scores of other families and singles from the neighborhood to resettle in Baltimore and Philadelphia.  Northern coastal cities had doubled and tripled in size during the great post-war economic expansion.  Vast new neighborhoods were constructed, seemingly overnight, to accommodate the flood of poor European immigrants, many of them illiterate in their home languages.  As English-speakers with ever-increasing literacy rates, accustomed to American styles of work, Blacks were valued both as employees and as supervisors of the chaotic European polyglot.

Back on the family farm in South Carolina, Paul and his wife finally had a child, in 1890.  (In this scenario, as in Randall Robinson’s narrative, the baby is the grandfather of today’s prototypical Black male.)  Paul now owned another 80 acres, purchased from neighbors who had moved to jobs in booming southern and northern cities.  He was 43, an ex-slave. 

In 1900, the U.S. celebrated the dawning of a new century and the feat of having achieved a larger gross national product than the combined economies of Western Europe.  Paul and his brood visited Paulette and her husband in Baltimore.  Her scattered children were doing well, situated at comfortably higher rungs of the ladder than Ellis Island’s “wretched refuse” from teaming European shores.  The slave-born brother and sister feel at peace and secure in their middle age.

What a Difference a Farm Makes

We can stop this exercise right here.  There is no need to follow Paul and his descendants any further.  According to this scenario, 40 acres and a mule and constitutional protections have allowed Paul and millions of other African Americans to travel from slavery to an economic status above that of the most recent white immigrants, in just 35 years.   Barring some massive intervention in their normal path of mobility, there is every reason to believe that Paul’s family and peers will maintain and even increase this advantage.

Paul doesn’t need to worry about his great-grandson, who will be born in 1955.  Although the South Carolina plot and mule were certainly no fair compensation for Paul and his ancestors’ enslavement, his descendants will probably never even consider raising the issue of Reparations. 

But Paul never got his land or animal.  Terror throttled his vote.  The U.S. Congress trampled on it’s own amendments to the Constitution.  New Hampshire Senator Henry Blair’s Education Bill, introduced decade after decade, was never passed.  Millions of immigrants were leapfrogged over English-speaking African Americans, to claim jobs on the docks and the booming cities beyond.

In 1900, America marked its economic triumph over the continent of Europe by chasing George White, the last of the Reconstruction era Black Congressmen, out of Wilmington, North Carolina. 

Randall Robinson’s prototype of “Paul” died a year later, broke and sick in body and soul.

What the Ellis Island immigrants got and “Paul” lost is just a part of the debt owed to African Americans. It is quantifiable, although not easily so.  History is seldom neat, and neither are court claims.  The lawyer’s job is to add “elegance” to argument.

The American social and economic structure assumed its present shape during the 35 years between the Civil War and the end of the century.  Our fictitious tale of Paul and his sister is not a heroic one.  Rather, it is the logical path of mobility that average African Americans could have been expected to take, had Congressman Stevens been successful in distributing those acres and animals, buttressed by the necessary constitutional protections. 

There is every reason to believe that such a normal progression would have placed Black Americans at a substantial advantage over late nineteenth and early twentieth century European immigrants. Instead, Black America was relentlessly assaulted by the full fury of American racism during this crucial period.

Tallying the Bill

What is the proper bill for Reparations?  It is better to begin with the question, What is the value of white privilege and the resulting accumulation of wealth and status?  It is this privilege, which both public and private America conveyed to millions of white immigrants during “Paul’s” era, that allowed non-English-speakers with foreign habits and sensibilities to push his generation aside.  Without his land and mule, Paul never had a chance.

The law requires defensible data and comparative examples.  Harm must not only be proven to have occurred, it must be assigned a reasoned value.

Ironically, it is far easier to put a price on the unpaid wages of slavery, or on the value of the products and services produced by the slave, than it is to measure the probabilities of human economic and social mobility—the What Ifs of Paul’s fictional story.  Slaves, by definition, have no prospect of mobility.  Legal and accounting teams can search the records and find hard figures.  That is what the Reparations Coordinating Committee and its associates have been doing, in preparation for suits against slavery-tainted corporations.

But judges render awards based on reasonable What Ifs every day; What if father had not died, but continued to work for the company another 20 years?  How much would he have earned?  What new neighborhood would the family have moved to?  What kind of house would they have owned?  The answers to these questions are inferred in the cash award.

Accountants, economists, historians and political scientists can better flesh out this scenario, but the central thrust remains.  40 acres and a mule, combined with the coherence of a large population rooted in a common experience and speaking the same language, would have given African Americans a leg up as the nation was taking on modern form.  The multiplying effects of Stevens’ bill would have likely resulted in a relative Black advantage despite the proximity of the slave experience. The new and diverse crop of Europeans would have found it much harder to compete with free Black men and women.  It is likely that many of their descendants would still be playing catch-up.

What these Europeans gained is what “Paul” and his lineage lost.

The U.S. gross domestic product was ten trillion, two hundred billion dollars in 2001.  A portion of that amount is based solely on historical white privilege, the inherited gift that keeps on giving. 

Compute the percentages and values as you choose.  Use any model you like.  The results will astound you; any fraction of $10 trillion is a lot of money, flowing year after year, reproducing more privilege.  Misery isn’t the only thing that gets passed down through generations.

One percent of $10 trillion is $100 billion, yearly.

Nothing can compensate or make amends for slavery and the nightmares that followed.  As you make arrangements to attend the Millions For Reparations Mass Rally, August 17, in Washington, remember that mule and think in large numbers.  The debt America owes to Blacks is huge, but so are its pockets.

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Thaddeus Stevens’ Reparations Bill for the African Slaves in the United States






Issue Number 2
May 8, 2002





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Other commentaries in this issue:

Newark: The First Domino? - The Hard Right Tests its National Black Strategy

A Letter from Harvard: "How to spot a "Black Trojan Horse." Dr. Martin Kilson, Guest Commentator

The Living Wage Movement: A New Beginning - Bread, Power and Civil Rights in 19 Languages

Rep. Cynthia McKinney's Statement on the Events of September 11: The need for an investigation of the events surrounding September11 is as obvious as is the need for an investigation of the Enron debacle.

Condoleezza & Geraldo, a Fine Pair: The Role Models' Burden

Commentaries in issue number1 you may have missed are:

Make The Amendment: How to Get the U.S. Government Out of the International Drug Trade

Fruit of the Poisoned Tree: The Hard Right's Plan to Capture Newark NJ

Psychologically Unfit: The U.S. Can't Handle the Death Penalty

Linquistic Profiling: By Patrice D. Johnson, guest commentator

You can read any past issue of The Black Commentator in its entirety on the Past Issues page.