The fact that centuries-old relics of slavery still support the economy of the United States suggests that reparations for slavery would need to go beyond government payments to the ancestors of enslaved people to account for profit-generating, slave-built infrastructure.
While difficult to calculate, scholars estimate that much of the physical infrastructure built before 1860 in the American South was built with enslaved labor.
Railways were particularly critical infrastructure. According to “The American South,” an in-depth history of the region, railroads “offered solutions to the geographic barriers that segmented the South,” including swamps, mountains and rivers. For inland planters needing to get goods to port, trains were “the elemental precondition to better times.”
Our archival research on Montgomery, Alabama, shows that enslaved workers built and maintained the Montgomery Eufaula Railroad. This 81-mile-long railroad, begun in 1859, connected Montgomery to the Central Georgia Line, which served both Alabama’s fertile cotton-growing region – cotton picked by enslaved hands – and the textile mills of Georgia.
The Eufala Railroad also gave Alabama commercial access to the Port of Savannah. Savannah was a key cotton and rice trading port, and slavery was integral to the growth of the city.
The Eufala Railroad closed in the 1970s. But the company that funded its construction – Lehman Durr & Co., a prominent Southern cotton brokerage – existed well into the 20th century.
Examining court affidavits and city records located in the Montgomery city archive, we learned the Montgomery Eufaula Railroad Company received US$1.8 million in loans from Lehman Durr & Co. The main backers of Lehman Durr & Co. went on to found Lehman Brothers bank, one of Wall Street’s largest investment banks until it collapsed in 2008, in the U.S. financial crisis.
Some of these same rail lines still drive Georgia’s economy. According to a 2013 state report, railways that went through Georgia in 2012 carried over US$198 billion in agricultural products and raw materials needed for U.S. industry and manufacturing.
Savannah, Atlanta and Montgomery all show how, far from being an artifact of history, as some critics of reparations suggest, slavery has a tangible presence in the American economy.
And not just in the South. Wall Street, in New York City, is associated with the trading of stocks. But in the 18th century, enslaved people were bought and sold there. Even after New York closed its slave markets, local businesses sold and shipped cotton grown in the slaveholding South.
Geographic research like ours could inform thinking on monetary reparations by helping to calculate the ongoing financial value of slavery.
Like scholarship drawing the connection between slavery and modern mass incarceration, however, our work also suggests that direct payments to indviduals cannot truly account for the modern legacy of slavery. It points toward a broader concept of reparations that reflects how slavery is built into the American landscape, still generating wealth.
Such reparations might include government investments in aspects of American life where Black people face disparities.
Last year the city council in Asheville, North Carolina, voted for “reparations in the form of community investment.” Priorities could include efforts to increase access to affordable housing and boost minority business ownership. Asheville will also explore strategies to close the racial gap in health care.
It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to calculate the total contemporary economic impact of slavery. But we see recognizing that enslaved men, women and children built many of the cities, rail lines and ports that fuel the American economy as a necessary part of any such accounting.
This Sunday, July 10, 2016 photo shows the First Baptist Church, left, the First Baptist Church of Christ, center, and Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Macon, Ga. About 170 years ago, the two Baptist churches were one congregation, albeit a church of masters and slaves. Then the fight over abolition and slavery started tearing badly at religious groups and moving the country toward Civil War. The Macon church, like many others at the time, decided it was time to separate by race. (AP Photo/Branden Camp)
The faith community should guide the way on reparations for America’s history of slavery and racial discrimination and help the nation’s process of reconciliation and healing, religious leaders said during a panel held to discuss the issue.
U.S. religious groups have seen widespread interest in reparations, especially among Protestant churches that were active in the era of slavery. Many are starting or now considering how to make amends through financial investments and long-term programs benefiting Black Americans.
“The faith community not only can lead but should lead, and is in a unique position to lead,” the Rev. Iva E. Carruthers, general secretary of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, said during the Wednesday panel organized by The Associated Press, The Religion News Service and The Conversation.
The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland voted last year to create a $1 million reparations fund, likely to finance programs supporting Black students, nursing home residents, small-business owners and others. The vote followed years of research into how the diocese had benefited from racial inequality and slavery.
“If not the faith community, who? And if not now, when?” said the Right Rev. Eugene Sutton, the first Black cleric to hold the post of bishop of the diocese.
“Perhaps one of the reasons why so many in our society are saying, ‘Well, I can be spiritual, but I don’t have to belong to any religious organization,’ is because religious faith communities have failed to live up to their scriptures and to our words,” Sutton said. “We need to put our money where our mouth is. And reparations is one way to do that.”
Panelists were asked what they tell those who oppose reparations on the grounds that they’re not guilty of slaveholding or racism and shouldn’t be asked to pay for those crimes. Sutton said it’s not about guilt but a responsibility to repair the damage caused.
“Reparations is not a transfer of money from white people to Black people,” Sutton said. “It’s rather what this generation will do to correct the wrongs that previous generations have started.”
University of South Carolina history professor Nicole Maskiell, who has worked with congregations involved in reparations initiatives, praised faith communities for being first and leading by example.
“That takes courage,” she said. “It takes commitment, and it also takes a willingness to tell the truth.”
The Minnesota Council of Churches has cited a host of injustices — from mid-19th century atrocities against Native Americans to police killings of Black people — in launching a first-of-its kind “truth and reparations” initiative.
The initiative engages a diverse collection of 25 Christian member denominations, including some that are predominantly Black, and will model some of its efforts on South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It is based in Minneapolis, where the police killing of George Floyd last May sparked global protests over racial injustice.
“When I was growing up, white supremacy was a problem of the South. … Within the last five years, just here in Minneapolis, we’ve had the killing of Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, George Floyd, Daunte Wright,” said the Rev. Jim Bear Jacobs, the council’s director of racial justice. “All of this within 7 miles of each other, each one of those young men all at the hands of police, all unwarranted killings.”
“How did we, as a city of Minneapolis, how did we get to this point? And the only answer one can arrive at is white supremacy.”
Jacobs, who belongs to a Wisconsin-based Mohican tribe but was born in Minnesota, said the initiative seeks to address social justice concerns of African Americans and Native Americans in a unified way: “We are so much stronger together than we are doing our justice work in silos.”
Panelists said they’re hopeful that the latest attempts to address reparations will turn into meaningful action because the country is in the midst of a historic reckoning on racism, because young people are engaged and seeking justice and because faith communities have come together to demonstrate.
“Every night over the roar of the cries for justice, you could hear the indigenous drumbeat. … We’re there,” Jacobs said. “I have linked arm-in-arm with rabbis and imams and bishops and pastors.”
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who has sponsored a bill that would create a commission to study slavery and discrimination in the United States from 1619 to the present, said she hopes it will be passed by the House in late June.
The commission would also recommend ways to educate Americans about its findings and appropriate remedies, including how the government would offer a formal apology and what form of compensation should be awarded.
Support from the faith community, she said, is crucial: “It can help people, Americans, grapple with, understand and feel comfortable with doing the right thing.”
“We’ve come this far by faith, our beliefs, whether or not we’re reading from the Quran or the Torah, we’re reading from the Bible or any other faith book somewhere in there about love and charity and somewhere in there about restoration. I know there’s something in there about redemption,” Jackson Lee said. “That’s what America has to do.”
Associated Press writers David Crary and Kevin Freking contributed to this report.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.
An Episcopal seminary in Virginia has announced plans to create a $1.7 million endowment fund whose proceeds will support reparations for the school’s ties to slavery.
Virginia Theological Seminary said that enslaved persons worked on its campus and the school “participated in segregation” after the end of slavery.
“This is a start,” said the Very Rev. Ian S. Markham, president of the Alexandria-based seminary, in the statement. “As we seek to mark (the) Seminary’s milestone of 200 years, we do so conscious that our past is a mixture of sin as well as grace. This is the Seminary recognizing that along with repentance for past sins, there is also a need for action.”
A spokesman for the seminary said officials know of three buildings on its campus that were built with slave labor, including Aspinwall Hall, where the dean’s and admissions offices are located.
“We do want to honor those who worked in this place and we want to provide financial resources for their descendants,” said Curtis Prather, the seminary’s director of communications. “The Office of Multicultural Ministries will take the lead in the exhaustive research that will need to take place.”
Aspinwall Hall at Virginia Theological Seminary was one of three buildings on campus built with slave labor. Photo by John W. Cross/Creative Commons
The seminary, which was founded in 1823 but admitted its first African American student in 1951, raised the funds for the endowment with a capital campaign. School officials estimate that they will spend $70,000 annually from accumulated interest on reparations.
The decision comes as other institutions of higher learning, some with ties to religion, have mulled whether to offer forms of reparations or not.
In 2017, Georgetown University apologized for its involvement in the 1838 sale of more than 270 enslaved persons that kept the Catholic-run school from bankruptcy. The school renamed two buildings that once honored former university presidents who were priests and supporters of the slave trade. A year earlier, Georgetown announced that it would give preferential status in the admissions process to descendants of the enslaved people who had been owned by Maryland Jesuits.
Georgetown spokesperson Meghan Dubyak said the school’s board of directors will not have an “up or down” vote on the student referendum but “will engage thoughtfully and with the most careful consideration of the issues” raised by it.
Crowds of slave descendants and Georgetown University students and staffers gather for a dedication ceremony of two buildings at the school that were renamed, one in honor of a slave sold by Maryland Jesuits, and another for a free black woman educator, on April 18, 2017. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“To my knowledge, this is the most substantial direct financial reparations effort by a university,” said Oast, chair of the history department at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. “What makes this action by VTS more significant is that it has been undertaken by the university itself, and is fully funded.”
Quardricos Driskell, who teaches religion and politics at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, agreed.
“VTS would by definition be the first to have a fund — a University-established led form of reparations,” Driskell, pastor of Beulah Baptist Church, located about three miles from the seminary, told Religion News Service in an email message.
Other institutions have chosen to recognize their connections to slavery without making monetary reparations. Last year, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, a flagship institution of the Southern Baptist Convention in Louisville, Kentucky, released a report about its founders condoning slavery and owning slaves, but six months later denied a request from an interracial ministers coalition for financial support for a nearby black college.
Virginia Theological Seminary currently has an enrollment of about 200 master’s and doctoral level students.
The school intends to determine with stakeholders how the income from the endowment fund will be distributed. It said some of it will be allocated to descendants of enslaved persons who worked at the seminary and to assist the work of African American alumni, especially those involved with historic black churches. It also plans to encourage African American clergy in the Episcopal Church and support programs that promote inclusion and justice.
“Though no amount of money could ever truly compensate for slavery, the commitment of these financial resources means that the institution’s attitude of repentance is being supported by actions of repentance that can have a significant impact both on the recipients of the funds, as well as on those at VTS,” said the Rev. Joseph Thompson, director of the seminary’s Office of Multicultural Ministries, in a statement.
“It opens up a moment for us to reflect long and hard on what it will take for our society and institutions to redress slavery and its consequences with integrity and credibility.”
Although the notion of compensating freed slaves has been around since at least the Civil War, providing reparations for their descendants has never really gained much traction in the United States, as I learned while researching my book “Making Whole What Has Been Smashed.”
Is anything different now?
Reparations are rare
Historically, the term “reparations” dealt primarily with the indemnification of states ravaged by war, such as those required of the Germans by the Versailles Treaty after World War I.
In the aftermath of World War II, however, the term began to acquire a broader meaning, extending to compensation for those injured by the actions of a state.
Still, such compensation has happened only rarely.
Germany paid Holocaust survivors US$927 million – or $8.84 billion today – in compensation as part of the 1952 Luxembourg Agreement, most of it going to the newly created state of Israel to defray the costs of resettlement.
Later, the U.S. offered “redress” to some 82,000 Japanese Americans who were incarcerated as “enemy aliens” during World War II. The 1988 Civil Liberties Act granted a presidential apology and $20,000 to each living person who had been detained based on the recommendations of a commission created by Congress in 1980 to examine the causes of the “internment.”
But this payback was intended to be very limited. During the debate, then-Sen. Ernest Hollings worried, “Where do we draw the line against reparations to the countless other groups of Americans who have suffered because of actions of the U.S. government?”
And the law explicitly says compensation would only be provided to victims still alive in order to preclude reparations claims by the descendants of black slaves and others.
‘40 acres and a mule’
Efforts to avoid establishing a precedent for reparations arose in part because former slaves and their descendants have long sought some sort of compensation for their suffering under slavery and segregation. These efforts have achieved little.
Yet after taking office in 1865, President Andrew Johnson rescinded efforts to distribute land to those who were freed. Scholar-activist W. E. B. Du Bois thus observed that “the vision of ‘forty acres and a mule’ … was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment.”
‘Freedom is not enough’
A century after the Civil War, however, President Lyndon Johnson hinted at the need for reparations when he pushed through civil rights legislation intended to make blacks full citizens.
During a speech at Howard University in 1965, he declared: “Freedom is not enough. … It is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity.”
Although Johnson didn’t call explicitly for reparations, he urged something more than just equal rights for blacks – something that would rectify the economic disadvantage blacks faced. The speech has often been seen as a harbinger of affirmative action.
Two years later, in the aftermath of urban riots in Newark, Detroit and elsewhere, Johnson created the Kerner Commission to investigate the causes and recommend remedies. The commission found that “white racism” was the basic cause of the racial unrest and proposed massive investment in black communities.
Martin Luther King Jr. agreed with these critical assessments of black deprivation, but generally couched his appeals for addressing poverty in interracial terms. King did once indicate that he was coming to Washington “for a check,” but this was a rare aside.
The heart of King’s “Poor People’s Campaign,” his main focus toward the end of his life, was a universal basic income, not reparations.
But others would pick up the reparations baton. Black radical James Forman, for example, stormed Manhattan’s famously progressive Riverside Church in May 1969 to demand $500 million from “the white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues that are part and parcel of the capitalist system.” This and other demands formed the basis of the Black National Economic Conference’s “Black Manifesto.”
Calls for a commission
Little came of these efforts until decades later when then-Congressman John Conyers introduced the first bill on the issue in 1989.
It proposed a commission to “study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, its subsequent de jure and de facto racial and economic discrimination against African Americans, and the impact of these forces on living African Americans, [and] to make recommendations to the Congress on appropriate remedies.”
But are all these disparities rooted in slavery and segregation? This is where a congressional inquiry, which may finally be politically palatable thanks to the growing embrace of the idea among prominent Democrats, would come in.
Success, which will require legislation, will depend on building bipartisan support for the inquiry. Accordingly, I believe it’s best to avoid talk of “reparations.” After all, most Americans oppose them and always have.
First, get the commission and let it determine the causes of racial inequalities and the form that remedies should take. As poverty is not an affliction of blacks alone, the U.S. must also address the poverty that affects many others as well.
If the commission is given the opportunity to explore the causes of and remedies for racial inequality, however, perhaps Americans can finally move toward rectifying the inequities that beset blacks as a result of their country’s history of slavery, segregation and discrimination.