Monday, August 4, 2008

Reparations Re-Visited

By William Sturkey, Summer Intern at the Kirwan Institute

On July 30th, the United States House of Representatives paved the way for a future discussion of reparations when it passed a resolution apologizing for the enslavement of African Americans and the creation of the Jim Crow system. The resolution included this key statement: “The vestiges of Jim Crow continue to this day.”

Discussions over reparations have always been controversial. The debate is severely limited however, because it focuses solely on the institution of slavery prior to Emancipation. Opponents of reparations are quick to point out that slavery was legal, not all African Americans were slaves, and not all blacks in America today had enslaved ancestors. They also are quick to point out that the expense to the government would be immense and there would not be enough resources to benefit all African Americans. In addition, they ask where the line should be drawn. Should Native Americans receive reparations? What about women whose unpaid labor also helped build this country? These are all legitimate concerns and make general reparations to African Americans based on legal slavery impossible.

Nevertheless, the new resolution passed by the House paves the way for thinking about reparations in a different light. In his new book, Wall Street Journal Atlanta Bureau Chief, Douglas Blackmon, explores Post-Emancipation slavery. Much of this illegal and forced labor took place on tenant farms and in prison labor camps. This form of slavery lasted well into the 20th Century. Unpaid African American labor built much of the South’s infrastructure during the Great Depression and beyond. Some of these prisoners were even “rented” to large companies such as U.S. Steel.

If historians can find labor contracts and imprisonment records that detail unpaid labor, why can we not force states to provide back pay for wrongfully enslaved individuals? If the government is serious about recognizing the atrocities of the Jim Crow system, then it should investigate illegal human trafficking after the Civil War. Many of these individuals are still alive, and have fallen victim to an income gap that was created because of their unpaid labor. Should historians be able to find and prove individual cases of illegal slavery, those individuals who are still alive should receive back pay, adjusted for inflation, and with interest. Their ability to achieve the American dream was, and still is, limited by the illegal systems of human enslavement the government permitted throughout the 20th Century.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting...It's amazing how much American history has been "forgotten."