At the height of the civil rights protests during the 1960s, a question emerged among members of the white press who were attempting to understand Black anger and unrest: What does the Negro want?

In fact, the question had been answered 100 years before, at the end of the Civil War, when Union General William T. Sherman and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton traveled to Savannah, Georgia, and asked Rev. Garrison Frazier, a native of Granville County, what he and other freedmen would need to sustain themselves.

“Land,” Frazier replied. “The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land and turn and till it by our own labor. …We want to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own.”

This is chronicled by Duke University economist William A. Darity Jr. and coauthor A. Kirsten Mullen in the married couple’s recently published, exhaustively researched book, From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century

Darity and Mullen present a compelling case on behalf of the nation’s enslaved ancestors “whose sale and whose forced labor drove the commerce of the United States from the earliest days of the nation and made possible the world we inhabit today.”

Published in March by UNC Press, the book begins with the legendary anti-lynching journalist, Ida B. Wells, who summed up the plight of the nation’s formerly enslaved in 1893, when she observed that emancipation “left us homeless, penniless, ignorant, nameless, and friendless. … Russia’s liberated serf was given three acres of land and agricultural implements to begin his career of liberty and independence. But to us no foot of land nor implement was given.”

Darity and Mullen outline the systemic policies of racial hatred and violence that stripped Black Americans of the vote, allowed white terrorism to murder hundreds of leaders during Reconstruction and turned routine imprisonment into slavery by another name.

“Slavery was a bad thing, and freedom, of the kind we got, with nothing to live on, was bad,” Raleigh’s Patsy Mitchner, a formerly enslaved woman, told an interviewer with the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937. She called slavery and freedom “two snakes full of poison.” 

White hatred of Black people devastated prosperous communities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Rosewood, Florida, and Wilmington. The authors argue that those inequities produced today’s yawning racial wealth gap. 

After the violent end of Black business districts, so-called urban renewal efforts bulldozed even more Black business corridors for the construction of interstate highways. More aptly called Black removal projects, they included the Hayti district here in Durham, where hundreds of businesses and homes were destroyed in the shadow of downtown to make way for the 15-501 Expressway and NC-147.

Henry McKoy, who is director of entrepreneurship at North Carolina Central University’s business school, says that the loss of Hayti, where commerce had a local flavor even in the increasingly global market of the city’s tobacco industry, is incalculable.

“We are talking about literally billions of dollars in lost economic value for the Hayti community that could have resulted from expanding as the macroeconomic landscape expanded,” McKoy says. “Black Durham was denied the economic standing that it had built over the course of the century before the highway came through.”

McKoy adds that wealth from Hayti would have had generational impacts on the broader Black community of Durham and beyond. 

“Homes, businesses, capital, and wealth passed to the next generation would have had a tremendous impact on the journey of Durham’s Black diaspora,” he says. “That would have had an impact on education, health, wealth, income, and opportunity for countless individuals and families. Wealth can have multiplier effects, but poverty can, too.”

McKoy says that when he speaks with senior citizens who grew up in Hayti, they talk about the mental effect of coming of age thinking they could be anything because they saw people around them doing everything. 

“That creates internal and external confidence that Black people are societal contributors,” McKoy says. “It is the embodiment of Black Lives Matter.”

The roots of whites’ refusal to affirm—or propensity to destroy—Black empowerment dates back to Sherman’s conversation with Rev. Frazier near the end of the Civil War. 

The Union commander followed the recommendations of Radical Republicans Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and John C. Frémont and issued Special Field Order No. 15 in 1865, three months before the end of the Civil War. It authorized land confiscated and abandoned by Confederates who had supported the South to be redistributed to the freedmen.

The promised land covered three states that stretched across the coast of South Carolina and extended through Georgia, down into the northern portions of Florida.

Radical Republicans, an abolitionist faction of the party, argued that in addition to giving up their lands, the Southern states that seceded and fought the Union should be treated as traitors. Black citizenship, they reasoned, could not be fully achieved unless the secessionists were dealt with harshly. Land distribution, Stevens said, was critical in changing the fabric of Southern society.

Of course, the promise of forty acres and a mule became one of the earliest African American dreams that were deferred, to paraphrase the poet Langston Hughes.

Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, President Andrew Johnson ordered the land allocated under Special Field Orders No. 15 to be restored to the former slaveholders. On Christmas Day in 1868, he gave universal pardons to Southern traitors who would destroy America to own fellow human beings as if they were little more than livestock.

What followed in the moral void was the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that made Jim Crow the law of the land, and the period from 1900–1920 that saw the construction of what Darity and Mullen call “dismemory projects.” 

This included the erecting of Confederate monuments on courthouse grounds and naming streets, schools, and military bases after Confederate leaders. Darity and Mullen say that by 2016, there were 1,500 Confederate monuments across the United States, including 140 in North Carolina.

Full citizenship remains an unfulfilled dream as Black Americans struggle with gentrification, mass incarceration, underlying health issues, voter suppression, and poverty. Darity and Mullen point to the racial wealth gap “as the most robust indicator of the cumulative economic effects of white supremacy in the United States.” The authors refer to a 2016 survey of consumer finances that reported a racial wealth gap of about $795,000 between Black and white households.

To eliminate the racial wealth gap, Darity and Mullen propose a range of payment options based on unpaid wages, the purchase prices of human property, and the land promised to the freedman. The scholars point to the words of Judah P. Benjamin, a member of Jefferson Davis’s Confederate cabinet, who said in 1860, “our slaves … directly or indirectly involve a value of four thousand million dollars.”

Darity and Mullen point out that, as of 2019, $4 billion compounds to $2 trillion at 4 percent interest, to $9.3 trillion at 5 percent, and to $42.3 trillion at 6 percent. A reparations program based on the broken promise of forty acres and a mule could result in financial payments of $267,000 per person for 40 million Black descendants of American slavery.

Reparations advocates have long been relegated to the margins in calls for equality for Black people in America, but perhaps their moment has come. These times are not unlike how Darity and Mullen describe pre-Civil War politicians whose calls for the abolition of slavery was tantamount to political suicide. 

However, by the start of the war, abolitionists were viewed as sages and now calls for reparative justice are being heard again across the land. 

One of the earliest advocates for reparations was Callie D. Guy House, who was born in slavery in 1861. She was a widower with five children living in Tennessee before she became the driving force behind a federal lawsuit in 1915 that claimed the U.S. Treasury owed the freedmen $68 million for the sale of slave-grown and slave-harvested cotton that was confiscated by Confederates at the end of the Civil War.

The claim was denied. In 1916, House and other reparations leaders were indicted on charges of obtaining money from the freedmen by circulating pamphlets saying pensions and reparations were forthcoming. House was convicted in 1917 and served nearly a year in prison.

HR 40, a bill that calls for a commission for the study of reparations, was first introduced by Michigan Democrat John Conyers in 1989. After Conyers gave up his seat in 2017, Shelia Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas took up the cause. But the bill has never reached the floor of Congress for a vote.

In a New York Times story late last month, “Banks Should Face History and Pay Reparations,” Angela Glover Blackwell and Michael McAfee argued that the financial industry can close the wealth gap but say that a federal reparations policy is unlikely to come anytime soon.

So what can private money, and even progressive cities like Durham, do for what McKoy calls “preparation for reparations?”

During his state of the city address this year, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel called on the city council to support reparations in some form. But Darity and Mullen say that no effective program can take place without federal intervention, because slavery, Jim Crow, and the ensuing social inequities have occurred under federal authority.

“We don’t believe local efforts to remedy unjust conditions should be given the label, ‘reparations,'” Darity told the INDY this week.

McKoy does not disagree with his fellow economic scholars’ assessment, but he says there is enough culpability to go around at the federal, state, local, and institutional levels. 

“Overall, I believe that reparative justice is critical to any longtime goal of achieving racial wealth parity or even making substantial progress towards closing the gap for the Black community,” McKoy says. “It’s an extended effort that goes far and wide to address these past harms and addresses the economic hollowness of Black America in the 21st century.”

McKoy says a reparations program in Durham should include economic investment in Black communities along with state and federal resources.

Specifically, McKoy recommends that the city should focus on opening up the Black business pipeline. It should increase the diversity of places where Black businesses are established so that they can capture diverse dollars while also taking advantage of the redevelopment of historic Black commercial and residential corridors. It should increase access to the capital needed for the Black business ecosystem to grow. 

In short, the city should remove as many barriers to success as possible for Black entrepreneurs, while also investing in education to expose more Black youth to innovative environments. This might entail committing public properties to create Black wealth, with a focus on community improvement without forced displacement. It might entail the creation of a real-estate bank for intentional, inclusive development. It might entail finding creative ways to get the private sector in Durham to invest at a large, long-term scale. 

“While the fight for reparations is happening, we can prepare the infrastructure of Black businesses,” he says. “Perhaps if Durham can lead the way and get it right, then cities all across America will follow suit.”

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One reply on “The Call for Reparations Is Ringing Out Again. Can Durham Get It Done?”

  1. I think the government should be glad to pay reparations to any former slave still living. Documentation of servitude shouldn’t even be required – simply prove that you were alive as of, say, April 1, 1865? And you get a share of whatever amount is set aside for reparations.

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