We’ve all heard about the “40 acres and a mule” promised to formerly enslaved Black Americans as reparations for slavery. But the history of reparations doesn’t begin, and it certainly doesn’t end after the civil war. So, sit tight and let the Root walk you through the complicated history of reparations in the United States.
Black Voters Matter Launches “Black Reparations Fund”
In June, Black Voters Matter, a voting rights organization, launched their “Black Reparations Fund.” The fund doesn’t provide cash payouts to Black Americans. Instead, the group will give grants to “grassroots” groups working to research and fund reparations projects.
$50 M Awarded To Descendants in Minnesota and Dakotas
The Bush Foundation announced that they’d committed $50 million to descendants of formerly enslaved people in Minnesota and the Dakotas. The Foundation made it very clear that this wasn’t a reparations program, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth talking about in the broader reparations conversation.
California Moves Forward With Reparations
In California, the fight for reparations is underway. Last month, the state’s reparations task force approved a series of reparations proposals, including cash payments and homeownership grants, for the state legislature to review.
San Francisco’s Reparation’s Plan
Now here’s the plan everyone wants to know about. San Francisco made massive waves after city officials approved a draft proposal, which included a $5 million per person payout for qualified descendants of formerly enslaved people. Although that part of the draft plan doesn’t seem super likely to be enacted, the proposal includes 100 recommendations aimed at benefiting Black San Franciscans.
The Fight for Reparations in Congress
In May, Representative Cori Bush introduced a resolution to give $14 million in reparations to the descendants of formerly enslaved Africans. But she’s not the only person working on Capitol Hill to bring us reparations.
Congressional Reparations Commission Bill
Earlier this year, Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee re-introduced legislation to form a commission to study proposals for reparations for African American descendants of slavery.
Where Did 40 Acres and a Mule Come From?
While we’ve got you. Here’s a history lesson. After the civil war, union leader met with Black leaders in Savanah, Georgia. Following the meeting, General William Sherman signed Field Order 15, which decreed that roughly 400,000 acres of confiscated Confederate land be given to the Black families that had been forced to tend to it. As a part of the order, 40 acres of “tillable” land was to be given to each Black family. Some families were also supposed to be given mules, hence the “40 acres and a mule” thing.
The First City to Enact Reparations
In 2021, Evanston, Illinois, a suburb outside of Chicago, became the first city to fund reparations. Black residents were allotted $25,000 grants towards promoting homeownership. And in March, the city voted to increase the number of uses for the $25,000 grants.
Boston’s Reparations Plan
Boston might not be top of mind when it comes to reparations, but the city has made some pretty major strides in that department. Late last year, the Boston City Council unanimously voted to form a task force to study how to provide reparations to Black Bostonians.
Providence Funds Reparations
Another name you might not have been expecting in the reparations conversation is Providence, Rhode Island. In December, the city approved a $10 million budget for the city’s reparations program. Although it doesn’t include direct payments, it will fund a host of programs like workforce development training and homeownership funds aimed at helping the Black community.
Georgetown University Announces $400K Reparations Plan
In 2019, George University announced that they would raise $400,000 per year to benefit descendants of the enslaved people who were sold to make a profit for the school.
The Modern Fight for Reparations
Ta-Nehisi Coates might not have been the first person to come up with the modern concept of reparations. But his 2014 Atlantic essay, The Case for Reparations, certainly helped push the reparations into the mainstream discourse.
In 1994, Florida approved over 2 million in reparations for the survivors of the 1923 Rosewood Massacre, which decimated the Black community in Rosewood.
What Happened to Reparations Post-Civil War?
Obviously, Black families never received their 40 acres. So what gives? Well, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson reversed Field Order 15 and gave the land to former slave owners.
In 1974, the U.S. government agreed to pay $10 million to the victims of the Tuskegee experiment. A group of Black men were experimented upon without their consent in an incredibly inhumane study to see what happens if syphilis is left untreated.
Rep. John Conyers Brings The Fight To Congress
In 1989, Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to create the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African-Americans Act.
The Black Manifesto
In May of 1969, Black Americans gathered in Detroit at the National Black Economic Development Conference. At the conference Former Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee former executive director James Foreman called for reparations for slavery and for continued discrimination against Black Americans.
While it’s hard to call giving one person restitution reparations in the modern sense, Henrietta Wood’s case is often included in discussions around reparations. In 1878, Wood won $2,500 in reparations from a white enslaver who’d kidnapped the free woman and forced her into slavery in Kentucky decades earlier. At the time, this was the largest ever reparations payment for slavery.
Southern Homestead Act
In 1866, there was one small attempt at something resembling reparations for formerly enslaved people. The law allowed formerly enslaved people in the south to purchase land at “reasonable rates” within a 6 month period. The problem was that not many formerly enslaved people were able to afford to buy property, which meant that very few of the intended beneficiaries actually benefited.
Before there was Henrietta Wood, there was Belinda Royall. In 1783, Royall, who was sold into slavery as a child to Isaac Royall, was awarded a pension by his estate. His estate had to pay her 15 pounds and 12 shillings.
Reparations For Other Crimes Committed By The United States
The list of people directly harmed by the United States is pretty long. And in some cases the U.S. federal government has paid reparations to those groups, meaning the concept isn’t inconceivable. Here’s a short list of those reparations.
Japanese Internment Reparations
In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, which provided $1.2 billion in reparations along with an apology to 60,000 Japanese-Americans who’d been interned during World War II.
Native American Reparations
This is another famous reparations case. In 2016, the U.S Federal government settled with 17 Native American tribes for $492 million.
Enslavers Received Reparations
Now here’s a group that does not fit into the wronged people who received reparations category. Formerly enslaved people were never paid reparations on any meaningful scale, but one surprising group was. In parts of the country, enslavers were actually paid reparations for the people they kept enslaved.