Durham City Council members recently approved a resolution calling on the state’s federal lawmakers, including Representatives G.K. Butterfield and David Price and Senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr, to support a series of measures to “increase racial equity” in the United States.
The resolution asks for the “immediate enactment” of programs to provide reparations to the descendants of enslaved Africans in order to eliminate the racial wealth gap, create a universal basic income, provide guaranteed living-wage jobs that are in the federal sector or federally funded, and increase the federal minimum wage to $15 or higher.
“Federal reparations are the best way to account and compensate Black Americans for the many decades of government policy that have advantaged white people and disadvantaged Black people,” Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson told the INDY.
The resolution is the latest call for reparations and racial economic justice from city officials and local community leaders and scholars in recent months.
Chief among them was a 60-page report submitted to council in late July by a local Racial Equity Taskforce. The 17-member task force is co-chaired by retired Superior Court Judge Elaine O’Neal, who is now interim dean at the N.C. Central School of Law, and Kaaren Haldeman, an anthropologist, writer, and activist.
After spending nearly two years studying wealth and the economy, criminal justice, health and environmental justice, education, and public history, the task force arrived at several blunt conclusions about criminal justice, housing, healthcare, and education. The systems that have been designed to protect the rights of white people indoctrinate others with the belief that the white race is superior, according to the report.
The report dovetails with a recent book from UNC Press called From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, co-authored by Duke professor William A. Darity Jr. and his partner, A. Kirsten Mullen.
Central to the exhaustively researched book’s thesis is an argument for the elimination of the racial wealth gap with financial payments of $267,000 per person for 40 million Black descendants of American slavery.
In March, the same month in which the book was published, Durham Mayor Steve Schewel called America’s legacy of racism “our great national sin” during his State of the City address at City Hall. He asked his fellow council members to join a coalition petitioning Congress to enact reparations “for all Black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.”
A bill to establish a commission to merely study and develop reparation proposals on behalf of Black Americans has languished in Congress for decades. HR 40 was first introduced by Michigan Democrat John Conyers in 1989. After Conyers gave up his seat in 2017, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, took up the cause. The bill has never reached the floor of Congress for a vote.
The resistance to financially compensating the descendants of enslaved Africans dates back 1865, three months before the end of the Civil War. Union General William T. Sherman issued Special Field Order No. 15, which authorized land confiscated and abandoned by Confederates who had supported the treasonous South to be redistributed to the freedmen. Three years later, the promised land was reallocated to traitorous and barely repentant slaveholders on Christmas Day, according to Darity and Mullen.
It is against this backdrop that Darity and Mullen chronicle the efforts of reparative justice pioneers Callie D. Guy House and Queen Mother Audley Moore.
Born into slavery in 1861, House 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 freedmen by circulating pamphlets saying pensions and reparations were forthcoming. House was convicted in 1917 and served nearly a year in prison.
Moore was a Black nationalist and civil rights leader who worked closely with Marcus Garvey. She petitioned the United Nations for reparations in the late 1950s. Her claim was denied, according to Darity and Mullen’s book
Despite decades of modern resistance to the idea, Durham Mayor Pro Tem Johnson remains hopeful that Congress will pass and develop a reparations plan. In the meantime, she says, the city is moving forward with recommendations from the Racial Equity Taskforce, including establishing a permanent racial-equity commission.
“I hope our resolution will encourage people in Durham to continue to have critical conversations about racial equity and the racial wealth gap,” she says.
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