By Jim Daniels
Beginning in 1989 and every two years after that until his retirement in 2017, former U.S. Congressman John Conyers of Michigan introduced a bill called the “Commission to Study Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act.” It was his effort to force a national discussion about the lasting effects of slavery and whether descendants of African slaves should be compensated. Since Conyers first submitted his proposal to the House of Representatives, it has on each occasion drawn very little non-black supporters.
The purpose of the legislation was to “acknowledge the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States and the 13 colonies between 1619 and 1865, and to establish a commission to examine the institution of slavery and the subsequent economic discrimination against African-Americans and make appropriate remedies.”
Neither a Democratic or Republican controlled Congress moved the bill beyond its committee introduction by Conyers. Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois at the time said, “the notion of collective guilt for what people did 160 years ago, that this generation should pay a debt for that generation, is an idea whose time has come and gone. I never owned a slave; I never oppressed anybody. I don’t know that I should have to pay for someone who did own slaves generations before I was born.”
Two issues are worth discussing when reparations programs are the subjects. The first is the mistaken belief that the granting of 40 acres and a mule to freed slaves never occurred. It is true that a small number of slaves received land grants in 1865 during President Lincoln’s term in office. After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor President Andrew Johnson reversed the granting of land as “reparations” and returned it to their White owners.
To move this discussion along by shedding light on the record of granting reparations, we only have to examine where and when reparations were enacted into law by various entities including the United States. Of those occasions there is none more recent than that which occurred in Scotland.
An announcement dated September 2018 dubbed Slavery, Abolition and the University of Glasgow, published recently by the university begins by acknowledging the following: The University of Glasgow acknowledges that during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it received some gifts and bequests from persons who may have benefitted from the proceeds of slavery. Income from such gifts and bequests has been used in supporting academic activity undertaken by the students and staff of the University. The study, undertaken with approval of the governing authority of the institution, names two senior faculty members as the authors of the report.
The benefit that accrued to the university because of the slave trade in Jamaica and the Caribbean is estimated at almost $256 million in today’s money. The university announced that it has launched a wide-ranging and ambitious “reparative justice program” that is based on the findings of more than two years of research. In addition, the University of Glasgow had also announced that it intends to implement programs and projects that will provide scholarships and exchange programs for Jamaican and Caribbean students through its links with the University of the West Indies as also reported by the Jamaican Gleaner newspaper. There are several reparative actions undertaken by governments spanning a considerable time. One that ought to be known in this land of Judeo-Christian values is the one reported in the Book of Luke where Zacchaeus says to Jesus, “Look, Lord, half of my possessions I give to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will repay it four-fold.”
As the debate regarding the place of reparations for the descendants of African slaves simmers just below the surface, there is much ignorance regarding the historical use of the instrument of reparations by the United States government that evoked the comment by economist David H. Swinton, “I don’t think people really understand reparations.” And clearly, they probably don’t; if they did, they would know and leverage the support it provides by reminding everyone that reparations are very American. “Since 1971, when indigenous Alaskans received nearly $1 billion and more than 44 million acres of land through the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,” writes Lori Robinson in Emerge magazine, “ethnic groups who have suffered mistreatment at the hands of the U S government, have been demanding reparations.” Then there is the apology and $20,000 paid to the Japanese-American survivors of World War 11 internment camps totaling over $1 billion.
Why was the leadership of the University of Glasgow persuaded to do this? “This report shows that although the University of Glasgow never owned enslaved people or traded in the goods they produced, it is nonetheless clear that the University received significant financial gifts and support from people who derived some or occasionally much of their wealth from slavery,” states the announcement. This is admirable and courageous decency.