Zero Acres and No Mule: The Broken Promise of Reparations for Slavery in the United States

“I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own bootstraps but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of oppression and as a result of a society that has deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.” – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For this project, we were tasked to identify an unsolved problem in American history, analyze it, and find a solution for it. Recently, the topic of reparations for slavery has been on my mind and I felt this would be a perfect topic. I asked myself, what other attempts have been made to provide reparations besides General Sherman’s promise and why does America refuse to admit the harmful effects of slavery that have lasted to this day? I also proposed the question, will reparations somehow end centuries of systematic oppression in America? In order to answer these questions, I needed to explore other movements for reparations and the cases they made, also how the effects of slavery are still prevalent to this day. Despite centuries of unpaid and forced labor, which built the country and its economy, black people have received nothing to compensate for centuries of discrimination and oppression. The effects of racism endured over slavery and in the general history of the country are deep-seated and still negatively affect the black community to this day. In this project, I will analyze the history and present-day realities of reparations in America, and also explore the advocacy, activism, and effects of slavery in the current day.

Personal Interest

For more about my personal interest, click here.

The History of Reparations for Slavery In the United States

246 Years of Work and Not a Penny to Show for it

Enslaved African-Americans on a southern plantation

The “reparations for slavery” debate in the United States has always been a topic of discussion ever since the abolishment of slavery in 1865 and even before that in “1854 by a black emigration convention” (Aulette). African-Americans felt they had a right to the land they had worked for generations. With no compensation for centuries of labor, it was hard for African-Americans to catch up to the collective wealth of the white population. Slavery had set in a form of institutionalized racism that beat down on black people and prevented them from climbing the ladder of success and catching up to their white counterparts. During the period of Reconstruction, there were attempts to rectify the wrongs of slavery, notably the Republicans at the time were adamant on achieving racial equality. However, despite government figures and black activists advocating for reparations, they saw no success in their fight to achieve their rightful piece of the pie.

Broken Promises

Union General William Tecumseh Sherman’s promise for agrarian reform following the Civil War.

In all of United States History, there has been only one true attempt at reparations, Union General William Sherman’s promise to the United States for agrarian reform, which would include granting African-Americans forty acres and a mule for compensation after slavery (Sherman). Unfortunately, this attempt fell short due to the vicious effects of racism. This was the first public attempt at reparations since the end of slavery. During the Civil War and for a short period after, about 40,000 former slaves received land. However, with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln nearly a week after the end of the war, Andrew Johnson became president and reversed any attempts at the progress made by the Lincoln Administration. The land that had been granted to some black people was returned to its former owners. Former slave owners were even paid for loss of property after slavery was abolished (Biondi). Unfortunately, the Republicans’ attempts to achieve racial equality eventually lost the battle to racism once they decided to give up their fight in order to reunite the Union.

Movin’ On Up?

The Freedmen’s Bureau Symbol

Although it wasn’t a form of compensation, The Freedmen’s Bureau, established on March 3, 1865, by General Oliver Otis Howard assisted freedmen and their families after the Civil War, acting as a temporary crutch for newly freed black people and poor white people. With the new presidency of Andrew Johnson, it was in danger of losing government support. While in effect, the Bureau provided necessities such as food, water, clothing, health care, jobs, and education. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau was attempting to help progress the status of African-Americans after slavery, the institutionalized effects of racism were too vast to overcome. The South enforced Black Codes that restricted the freedoms of African-Americans and attempted to replicate the oppressive conditions of slavery.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities started showing up in larger numbers in the post Civil War era.

Unfortunately, The Freedmen’s Bureau officially ended on July 1, 1869, but it still had lasting effects that helped advance the status of African-Americans. One of its most important legacies was the system of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). These were institutions of higher education put in place specifically for the education of African-Americans in the United States. With the support of the Freedmen’s Bureau, around 25 institutions were set up in the South to educate black people in America. In 1862, The Morrill Act gave states land grants to establish colleges, but because most of these land grant colleges in the South required their systems to be segregated, Congress passed the Second Morrill Act in 1890 which required states to establish land grants for black people. Many HBCUs were founded on land grants provided by the act, and in 1965, the Higher Education Act was formed which created a federal grant for HBCUs.

Activism and Advocacy

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many black activists and leaders have advocated for reparations for slavery. Sojourner Truth conducted a petition drive seeking land for former slaves, “America owes to my people some of the dividends. She can afford to pay and she must pay. I shall make them understand there is a debt to the negro people, which they can never repay. At least then, they must make amends” (Aulette). With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement also came the greater demand for reparations. Organizations were founded in devotion to the cause, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA) is the largest organization devoted to reparations in the United States. Starting in 1989, Michigan Congressman John Conyers has proposed a bill titled, H.R. 40 every year up until his retirement in 2017. This bill is a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations (H.R. 40, 1989). The findings would fuel a national dialogue about the vast effects of slavery in the modern age. Inspired by the payment of reparations to Japanese-Americans a year earlier, reparations for slavery became further prioritized by the black community.

President Ronald Reagan signs the Reparations Bill for Japanese-Americans (8/10/88)

Despite centuries of activism, demands, and proposals, formal compensation for slavery has not been granted. The Reconstruction Era after the Civil War appeared to be promising, as there were promises made and federal organizations set up for the progression of African-Americans. However, the institutionalized effects of slavery prevented these goals from coming to fruition. With the Civil Rights Movement, the debate picked up steam again and the case for reparations became more prominent.

For more information on the history of reparations in the United States, click here.

The Present Day Reality of Reparations for Slavery

Reparations in 2020?

Democratic contenders for president Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren (left to right) have provided their view on paying African-Americans reparations for slavery.

Recently, the debate for reparations for slavery has sparked a nationwide conversation, especially due to the presidential race leading up to the election of 2020. With some democratic contenders promising to fulfill the century-long ask for reparations, lots of people are providing their views on it (Herndon). Most pushes for reparations are not simply stemming from a want for them but from necessity. Throughout the history of the United States, black people have acquired wealth at a much slower rate than their white counterparts. Reparations in the current day would help to repair provide aid to black communities ravaged by the institutionalized racism set in place by slavery.

The Racial Wealth Gap

The Racial Wealth Gap has existed for the entire histroy of the United States, being one of the prime examples of how instituitonalized racism set in place by slavery has manifested to the current day.

Ever since Emancipation, it’s been extremely hard for black people to acquire wealth. During World War I, there were policies set in place, such as the New Deal, which were responsible for the formation of the American Middle Class. These policies excluded black people from attaining wealth along with the rest of the country. The GI Bill was another example of the exclusion, it provided a lot of federal funding for colleges and universities, but a lot of the schools did not admit black people (Ingraham). Education is seen as a means of mobility for black people, so the exclusion from education took a toll on economic growth. Even today, schools with predominantly black populations tend to receive less funding than schools with predominantly white populations. Although there are many factors that can be linked to why this occurs, it all boils down to the institutionalized racism set in by slavery (Cooper). From preschool, black and white students are set up on different paths already predetermined by society, but the racial wealth gap tends to widen the higher up in education you get. Black people tend to attain more years of education than white people, however, do not have the equitable amounts of wealth, even when compared with white families of similar backgrounds (“WHY WEALTH EQUALITY REMAINS OUT OF REACH FOR BLACK AMERICANS.”).

Lawsuits for Reparations

Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree

In order to combat these issues, many people have set up organizations, formed coalitions, or have joined together to lead the movement for reparations. Legal figures, such as Charles Ogletree and the late Johnnie Cochran joined together on a reparations team called the Reparations Coordinating Committee and planned to sue corporations, states, and the federal government for past discrimination and slavery (Roach). However, it is unclear if any of the lawsuits ever came into fruition.

The institutionalized effects of slavery have followed the United States into this day and age and still continue to hold black people back. In the past, black people were not provided the same resources for economic mobility, keeping them in a stagnant state. Although there have been many attempts at achieving reparations made by prominent black leaders and activist organizations, these attempts cannot hold up against the defiant hand of the American government. No matter how qualified black people are, institutionalized racism always gives white people the upper hand. Additionally, education alone cannot repair centuries of inequality, and although reparations cannot fix it either, it will certainly help tremendously. Providing aid in black communities will help the level the playing field and advance economic mobility. Granting reparations would be a step in the right direction towards equality in America.

For more information on the present day issue of reparations for slavery, click here.

So… what now?

What can we do?

By voting for candidates who are in favor of reparations and social justice, it will help incite change.

Although it may seem like individuals alone can’t do anything, however, we can do a lot more than we think. If people properly educate themselves on past cases for reparations and how slavery and its effects still exist in the modern day, more people will understand why they’re a necessity and elect people into office who will take the right steps towards reparations. Because black people are still a minority in America, white people can use their privilege to advocate for their black peers and push their local and state governments to explore the possibility of reparations. In addition to bringing more attention to the need for reparations, more people can help underprivileged communities. People can donate to foundations or volunteer at organizations that benefit black people. By doing everything in your power to challenge the system of white supremacy, it becomes a little bit easier for reparations to be granted. If more people started voting for more progressive candidates in favor of dismantling the systematic racism in America, it would make a tremendous difference.

What needs to be done

In the grand scheme of things, the American government is the responsible party for granting reparations. Most forms of reparations that were paid in the past have been in the form of checks, however, in this case, a check won’t be the best way to distribute money. My idea is to create a formal committee of prominent black leaders that will handle the money from the government and determine where to distribute it. The committee would equitably distribute money throughout predominantly black schools and create organizations and foundations to benefit black people. Education is one of the most important means of economic mobility, therefore investing in schools will start black children on a good path from the beginning. By putting emphasis on education and the importance of exposure, it will help cultivate the black community. The committee would also be in charge of organizations to help black people apply to colleges and pay for higher education. A student loan forgiveness program would also help black people build up wealth instead of having to pay it back. The committee should also be able to grant people money to help pay bills and buy necessities or housing. Programs need to be set up specifically for the purpose of giving black people equal opportunities that will help level the playing field. There are an immense amount of programs, foundations, and organization that could be set up in order to help black people succeed. Although monetary compensation won’t solve everything, it will definitely help, and hopefully, take the right step in the direction towards dismantling the system of institutionalized racism in America.

Thoughts? Comments? Concerns?

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my project. I am very passionate about this topic and hopefully, now you are too. Please provide feedback and constructive criticism in the comments and answer the poll down below.

Works Cited

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  1. April 26, 2019 by Yoska.Guta

    Hi Hailey,
    What an amazing project. But seriously, you did such a wonderful job and you really addressed all of the issues and opinions associated with reparation. Your page was set up well and I was very engaged. You had really catchy titles, which always made me intrigued to tread each paragraph. One question I have is this: What can younger children or teens do to support this cause if they will not be able to vote by the time 2020 elections happen?
    Again, you did such a great job and I really enjoyed reading your page!

  2. April 28, 2019 by Karina Ravipati

    Hailey, this is really good! I learnt a lot from your page, well done with explanations and sources, it helped to make things very understandable. The images and headings were great too. This is such an important issue, and I would love to have BSU discuss it in an assembly some time. Overall, really great research and writing, well done!

  3. May 12, 2019 by Rin Zoot

    Hi Hailey! Your interesting title brought me here, and your even more interesting content led me to stay and read. I think that the topic of paying reparations is an interesting idea, but I have a few questions about it. How would reparations to used effectively, and what for? Are there anyways to make sure that these payments are used appropriately to address the problems that you discuss? What are other methods that could be implemented to close this wealth gap?

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