Besides the predominant problem of the common belief that reparations for African Americans in the USA is only, or even mainly, an issue of the US government transferring huge sums of money to Black folk, or even just creating another massive social program for African-Americans, there are many, many more intriguing issues. Some are: for whom would reparations be provided? Who is and is not a descendant of African American slaves? Who deserves reparations? From what period to what period? Weren’t some African- Americans held as slaves by some Native American groups?
Another fiercely intriguing question is weren’t some African-Americans slaveholders themselves? If so, how could their descendants claim any reparations?
Well, according to the father of Black History Week, Carter G. Woodson ( in his famous 1924 essay, “Free Negro Owners of Slaves in the United States’), there certainly were some African- American slave owners who either hired out their slaves, or who used slaves for agricultural labor just like some whites did.
John Hope Franklin, another well known and highly respected Black historian, stated forthrightly that from the evidence he gathered, the vast majority of such Black slaveholders were people of means who purchased other family members (sometimes wives and/or children) to get them out of bondage, to protect them, or as a method of securing their freedom and release in particular locations. There were, of course, some Black slaveholders—a very few—who did use their slaves to primarily make money.
Again, that is a historical issue that must be dealt with in any logical reparations solution. Simply saying it didn’t happen will not do. The historical evidence shows that those small populations did exist, and must be accounted for in strategizing a fair reparations result.
Neither did all African-Americans fight against the South in the Civil War. Some, like the Native Guards of Louisiana, willingly fought on the side of the Confederates to maintain the slave-holding condition in the South.
Sen. Mitch McConnell was just recently quoted as saying that both his ancestors and those of former POTUS Barack Obama were slaveowners, and that in some way absolved people like him from having to deal with reparations in any way. Clearly this is a spurious claim—not even an argument—but Black slaveholding was a fact.
In certain situations, Black Americans who bequeathed land and wealth to their sons and daughters, also left them slaves and other property. That may sound heinous, but it did occur, if only rarely.
So, in determining reparations for whom, there must be real deep thought brought to the situation. How do we determine ways not to reward descendants of profit-seeking Black slaveholders? And how do we not reward the descendants of Black Confederate loyalists?
Reparations are not and will not become a simple matter. They are and will remain complicated. We will have to make some very hard decisions and choices that will not be agreeable to all concerned. But our very lives are evidence of the complications we have endured and overcome.
We will figure reparations out and make them real. That is a continuing part of our modern mission and assignment.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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