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.”
Thaddeus Stevens, speaking to the U.S. House of Representatives
in 1867 on behalf of his Slave Reparation Bill
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.
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.
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.
lawyers are already advancing claims in court. They need to hear
from their clients.
Genealogy of Oppression
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.
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
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:
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.
son, today’s black male’s great-grandfather, was also born into
slavery…. He too was illiterate and completely without skills….
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….
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…
son, the father of today’s black male, periodically attended
segregated schools…. He [became] a middle-aged laborer….
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….
is from this condition that today’s black male emerged.”
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
present generation is both victim and heir of this horror. How
is it to be compensated, made whole?
of course, is a question for the entire African American people
to grapple with. Wisely, Robinson offers no formula.
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?
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.
Suffrage, and Peace
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
a Difference a Farm Makes
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.
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.
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.
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.
Robinson’s prototype of “Paul” died a year later, broke and sick
in body and soul.
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.
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.
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.
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.
law requires defensible data and comparative examples. Harm must
not only be proven to have occurred, it must be assigned a reasoned
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.
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
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.
these Europeans gained is what “Paul” and his lineage lost.
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.
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.
percent of $10 trillion is $100 billion, yearly.
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