The History of Reparations for African Americans (1/2)

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To mark Black History Month, TRNN’s Eddie Conway speaks to Dr. Ray Winbush about why people of African descent have a strong case for reparations for the slavery in the United States

Story Transcript

EDDIE CONWAY, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Eddie Conway from Baltimore.

In honor of Black History Month, I have with me today Dr. Ray Winbush from the Urban Institute of Research at Morgan University. Today we’re going to try to talk about reparation, the history of reparation, and the future of reparation. So please join me in welcoming Dr. Ray Winbush.

Thank you for coming.

RAY WINBUSH, DIRECTOR, INSTITUTE FOR URBAN RESEARCH, MORGAN STATE: How are you doing, Eddie?

CONWAY: Would you give me a little background on yourself and what you do out at Morgan University?

WINBUSH: Well, I’m director of the Institute for Urban Research there. And Morgan, as you know, is the designated urban university of the state of Maryland. And what we do is do research in and around Morgan. About 100 mile radius in the state of Maryland on anything dealing with urban issues. And that’s broadly defined. So we can be doing things and do do things relative to transportation, health, law enforcement, education, and a variety of things, the only kind of black think tank on an HBCU campus in the country. So we get calls from literally all over the world because people want us to provide an African-American perspective on issues involving their environments.

CONWAY: Okay. Well, over the years we’ve always heard about reparations. There’s been many ideas about what that mean. Could you give us some insight on what this whole concept of reparation is?

WINBUSH: Well, reparations are basically compensation when a nation has committed crimes against humanity. And then you ask, well, what is a crime against humanity? It is a crime committed by a nation towards a group of people that is widespread over long periods of time. So the most obvious one, as we know, is the Holocaust that occurred during World War II. But one that is even longer than that is enslavement in the United States, which started roughly in the mid 1600s and lasted up until 1860. And one can make a strong argument that it persisted even beyond 1860, because we’ve got evidence of, like, chain gangs and convict labor and all of that.

So reparations for the transatlantic slave trade means that this country, along with many European powers, literally built the economic base of what we call the industrial white world on the backs of enslaved Africans. John Henry Clarke, the historian, once asked how many Africans were taken out of Africa. And no one knows. But his answer, I’ll always remember, was we must begin the count at 50 million.

And so this is a crime of scope that lasted for 400 years. Officially, the last nation to outlaw the importation of Africans for labor, free labor, was Brazil, and that wasn’t until 1888. So slavery by any definition is a crime against humanity, and reparations are trying to get these nations to say, look, we did something and we need to pay for it, and it doesn’t mean that the cost will cover what occurred, but it does mean that the nation says we need to make some type of restitution to this group of people who were enslaved for over 200 years in this country.

CONWAY: Well, how long had this request for reparation been going on? I mean, where did it start?

WINBUSH: Well, that’s a very good question, because in my research the only common denominator of all Africans in the Diaspora–I don’t care if they’re in South America, in the Caribbean, North America, Europe, and definitely on the continent, the only constant that you hear politically is the issue of reparations. Africans who were scattered because of the transatlantic slave trade have always tried to achieve reparations. In this country, of course, we call it 40 acres and a mule. Some other countries in the Caribbean, they talk about restitution and reparation and return. So it’s widespread. It’s the only thing that unites the African world politically.

And it’s in this country, the first written data that we have of an African tried to get reparations was Belinda Royall, who was enslaved for 50 years on Isaac Royall’s plantation, not in Mississippi or Alabama, but right outside of Boston in a tiny town called Medford, Massachusetts. And her so-called master fled on the eve of the American Revolutionary War. He fled up to Canada because he was siding with the British.

CONWAY: So you’re saying in the 1770s?

WINBUSH: Seventeen eighty-two, to be exact.

CONWAY: Okay.

WINBUSH: And when he left to go to Canada, he left fiftysomething-odd Africans on the plantation. And Belinda Royall actually sued for 50 years of unpaid labor. And she wrote a petition that in fact is in my book, Belinda’s petition, where she tells how she had been enslaved and exploited by Isaac Royall, who, by the way, gave the first money for the law school at Harvard University. And she said she wanted compensation for her and her daughter. And she went before the Massachusetts state legislature. When I was doing the research, the actual petition has her X on it. And I wanted to know who wrote this petition, because she certainly didn’t write it, but she dictated it to a young sister by the name of Phyllis Wheatley. So all of this stuff is tied in together. And the petition is a powerful statement about Africans seeking justice in this country in 1780. So that’s the earliest written documents we have of reparations in this country.

CONWAY: Well, give us a little insight on how this whole reparation movement grew and developed over time.

WINBUSH: Well, it’s really funny, because probably if you go from Belinda to Lincoln, it’s a period of roughly 60, 70 years, the American Civil War. And Lincoln, as you know, wrote the Emancipation Proclamation or declared on January 1, 1863. And although the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free anybody–I mean literally; it was more of a political move to get black folk in the South to fight on the side of the North–in January 1865, about four months before Lincoln was assassinated, his general, William T. Sherman, issued Field Order No. 15. And in that field order they said that because of–it’s like Lincoln knew that you don’t put a people in prison, work them, rape them, sell them, mame them without some type of compensation. So he actually says there that they on the islands of–the sea islands of Georgia, South Carolina, that you should give them 40 acres. And there is no mention of a mule. But when you saw people land during that time, it was like if I were going to sell you a Ford. You would assume that it had a motor in it, where if you sold land back in those days, you would assume that you get a mule with it.

CONWAY: So you’re saying General Sherman did this?

WINBUSH: Gen. T Sherman. And between January, Eddie, of 1865 and April 1865 and April 1865, April 14, to be exact, when Lincoln was assassinated, there were actually 400,000 acres distributed to Africans who had just been freed from enslavement.

CONWAY: On the sea islands?

WINBUSH: Sea Islands, all through Georgia, and some some of the richest land now, like Hilton Head, Daufuskie, and all of those were actually owned by Africans. And what Johnson did, Andrew Johnson, right after Lincoln got killed, he took those 400,000 acres that Sherman and Lincoln had distributed and gave them back for reparations to the Southern owners of enslaved Africans who he said needed to be compensated for their losses.

CONWAY: This was the rebels that signed loyalty oaths?

WINBUSH: Right. And he gave them the land back. They gave him the land back. So from that point, you move on and you still see this consistent thread of pushing for reparations throughout our history.

CONWAY: Did it ever go to Congress? Was there ever an attempt in Congress to codify it?

WINBUSH: It did. A sister by the name of Callie House, Mayor Francis Berry wrote a book called My Face Is Black and True. And she actually said that the enslaved Africans deserve what she called a pension. And she wanted to give a pension to those who had been freed from enslavement. And she actually–and keep in mind this was about eighteen–late 1880s that she had 600,000 freed African Americans by this time sign a petition or demanding or petitioning Congress to pay them a pension, just like the civil war veterans had a pension.

CONWAY: This is Reconstruction.

WINBUSH: This is a little bit after Reconstruction,–

CONWAY: After Reconstruction. Okay.

WINBUSH: –but during that same period, when she started doing–they actually put Callie House in jail, accused her of mail fraud. And she served time in federal prison in Tennessee. The guy who helped put her in prison was a young police officer by the name of J. Edgar Hoover.

CONWAY: Oh really?

WINBUSH: Yes. So this guy has a long history. We ain’t even got to Marcus Garvey yet.

CONWAY: Okay. Okay.

WINBUSH: So Callie House is the sisters were very much involved with pressing for reparations in this country. And then you go to Queen Mother Moore, for example, who was a follower of Marcus Garvey, and she pressed for reparations. So there’s a consistent thread. And James Forman, as late as 1969, got in front of Riverside Church in New York and demanded–I believe it was $500 million for Africans in this country and disrupted the 11 o’clock service at Riverside Church. And so the issue of reparations is consistent throughout American history, and actually the entire African diaspora.

CONWAY: Okay. Well, what we’re going to do is we’re going to wrap up right now, but we’re going to come back and we’re going to look at the recent, more modern attempts at reparation and where that particular movement is going. So thank you for joining us.

WINBUSH: Well, thank you, Eddie.

CONWAY: And thank you for joining The Real News.

End

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