The Roots and Righteousness of the African American Demand for Reparations

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“If the strict law of right and justice is observed, the country around about me, or the sunny South, is the entitled inheritance of the Americans of African descent, purchased by the invaluable labor of our ancestors, through a life of tears and groans, under the lash and the yoke of tyranny.” Anonymous North Carolina Black man quoted in James McPherson, The Negro’s Civil War (New York: Ballentine), p. 298.

For decades the African American quest for reparations was confined to fringe nationalist advocates such as Arthur Anderson, the Republic of New Africa, and N’COBRA, the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. Malcolm X broached the issue, though only in the last year of his life.
But now a sea change has occurred. Today, reparations has emerged as a major issue on African Americans’ political agenda, and has stimulated a strong movement struggling to make it a reality. The California General Assembly and nearly a dozen city councils have passed pro-reparations resolutions.

Yet the public remains misinformed. Most Americans believe that the reparations movement is a recent phenomenon, a response to the reduction or elimination of affirmative action programs. Reparations has also been misrepresented as simply compensation for slavery. A year ago, conservative activist David Horowitz exploited this distortion in a paid editorial advertisement which appeared in campus newspapers across the country. Responding to reparations’ historical misrepresentation in a 1994 article in African Studies Review, political scientist Ali Mazuri remarked, “We are dealing not merely with the history of bondage, but also with the bondage of history.” The purpose of my article is to shatter these shackles of misconception by presenting the movement’s history and perspective.

The movement’s origin is located in the philosophy and practices of the freed people. Its history can be divided into four periods: (1) 1862-1870; (2) 1890-1917; (3) 1969-1975; and (4) 1987 to the present. During each period, African Americans pursued reparations via a variety of tactics, including legislation and litigation.

Like the anonymous African American quoted in the epigram, most freed people
in the first period believed that their former masters’ land belonged to them by right of toil and survival of American terrorism. Baylay Wyatt, a freedman from Yorktown, Virginia argued, “I may state to all our friends, and all our enemies, that we has a right to the land where we are located. For why? I tell you. Our wives, our children, our husbands, has been sold over and over again to purchase the lands we now locate upon; for that reason we have a divine right to the land.” Shifting his argument from physical and mental abuse to labor exploitation, Wyatt rhetorically asked, “And didn’t we clear the lands and raise the crops ob corn, ob cotton, ob tobacco, ob rice, ob sugar, ob everything? And den didn’t the large cities in de North grown up on de cotton and de sugars and de rice dat we made? I say dey have grown rich and my people is poor.” Wyatt’s deceptively simple words speak volumes about the freed people’s understanding of the relationship between slavery and America’s economic development.

This perspective was shared by some Union Army officers and Congresspersons. For instance, General Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15 in 1862, reserving the lands south of Charleston, the Sea Islands, and along the St. John’s River in Florida for “the settlement of negroes.” After President Andrew Johnson restored the land to the former Confederate leadership, Blacks fought the Union Army. Defeated, they pursued the acquisition of land through other means.

In March of 1867, Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens embedded the freed people’s logic in House Resolution 29. This bill allocated 394 million acres, to be taken from the largest 70,000 southern landowners, to the head of each freed family in 40-acre plots, and awarded them fifty dollars. Stevens’ bill failed. So did H.R. 1119, Oklahoma Representative William J. Connell’s 1890 Ex-Slave Pension and Bounty bill. In the second period, beginning in 1890, five similar bills were introduced, but also defeated.

In the second period, beginning in 1890, five similar bills were introduced, but also defeated.M.L. King illustration Perhaps the first reparations lawsuit was filed in the District of Columbia in 1920. Four African Americans unsuccessfully sued the Treasury Department, claiming it owed Blacks $68,073,388.99 for taxes collected on cotton between 1862-1868. The suit was brought as a class action financed by Callie D. House, leader of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association.
Just a year after this suit was brought, there began a violent onslaught against entire African American communities to drive them out and take their lands. In 1921, the African American community in Tulsa, Oklahoma was destroyed by a racist mob. And in 1923, African Americans in the all-Black town of Rosewood, Florida experienced a similar pogrom. Many of the residents were massacred in both Tulsa and Rosewood.
The survivors and descendants of these atrocities finally won legal damages in the mid-nineties in Rosewood, and in 2000 in Tulsa. Also, in 1997-98, Black farmers across the South won a $1 billion discrimination suit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
These victories have energized a high-powered legal team led by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, Johnnie Cochran, Alexander Pires Jr., and Richard Scruggs. Ogletree believes that victories in cases like Rosewood and Tulsa have altered the political climate and established legal precedents for reparations.
At the heart of their complex legal strategy lies an understanding that the demand for reparations encompasses not only slavery itself but also post-slavery racial violence, labor exploitation, and discrimination in all aspects of economic and social life. For instance, historians have documented approximately 3,000 African Americans who were murdered, and their civil rights violated, by lynch mobs between 1882 and 1930. Political economists have shown that for about a century following Emancipation, Blacks received 50 to 66 percent what Whites were paid, though they often performed similar work. It was not until 1948 that the practice of paying Black school teachers half as much as White teachers was declared illegal in Alston v. School Board of Norfolk, Virginia. Moreover, Blacks were initially excluded from large-scale social programs such as those initiated by the 1862 Homestead Act, the 1935 Social Security Act (which originally excluded domestic and agricultural workers and thus 66 per cent of all Black workers), and the 1949 act creating the Federal Housing Authority. Finally, “Torn from the Land,” a path breaking investigation by the Associated Press, recently documented “a pattern in which black Americans were cheated out of their land or driven from it through intimidation, violence and even murder.” (
In sum, Black demands for reparations seek redress not just for slavery, but for a pre- and post-slavery legacy of White supremacy and a living history of labor exploitation, land appropriation, racist violence, and social discrimination. The righteous premise is, as Robert Westley wrote in 1998, “that the victims of unjust enrichment should be compensated.”

Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua directs the Afro-American Studies and Research Program and teaches History at UIUC, and is a member of the Black Radical Congress.

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