On Wednesday, the issue of reparations for slavery will be a topic of discussion on Capitol Hill during a hearing scheduled by the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties “to examine, through open and constructive discourse, the legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade, its continuing impact on the [African America] community and the path to restorative justice.” This round of hearings is a follow-up to the 2007 hearings led by Former Michigan Congressman John Conyers, who from 1989 to 2017 sponsored House Resolution 40, calling for a congressional study of reparations. Conyers contended that raising the topic was not meant to be divisive or controversial but rather that it was necessary as, he stated, “Slavery is a blemish on this nation’s history, and until it is addressed, our country’s story will remain marked.” With the publication of Randall Robinson’s bestselling book The Debt: What America Owes Blacks in 2000, the compelling 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (who will testify at the hearing) and its injection into the 2020 Presidential election, some in Congress believe the moment has come to accept the invitation to debate the issue.
Yet the debate about reparations for slavery is not a new one — and the history of the idea shows just how many roadblocks there are to a meaningful conversation about the topic. In fact, around the turn of the 20th century, the federal government exercised its power to silence the voices of thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans who sought restitution for their two and a half centuries of legalized enslavement.
While the 13th Amendment abolished chattel slavery in the United States in 1865, it made no provision for restitution to the formerly enslaved population, which numbered approximately four million. The policy popularly referred to as “40 acres and a mule,” a promise by the federal government to redistribute land to former slaves that had been confiscated from Confederate rebels during the Civil War, was immediately overturned by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson, who reestablished white Southern rule. With the end of government support for land going to freedpeople, a sharecropping system arose in its place, leaving them economically destitute. In a letter to Democratic politician Walter R. Vaughan of Iowa in 1890, Frederick Douglass marveled that the American government had failed to compensate black people for 250 years of unpaid labor, which included building the Capitol and White House. “The Egyptian bondsmen went out with the spoils of his master, and the Russian serf was provided with farming tools and three acres of land upon which to begin life,” Douglass wrote, “but the Negro has neither spoils, implements nor lands, and today he is practically a slave on the very plantation where formerly he was driven to toil under the lash.”
During this time the first iteration of what became known as the “Ex-Slave Pension Bill” (H.R. 11119) was introduced in Congress at Vaughan’s request. The concept of an ex-slave pension was based on the post-Civil War program for disabled veterans (including blacks) established by the Bureau of Pensions. Vaughan articulated his pro-reparations views in a pamphlet titled Vaughan’s Freedmen’s Pension Bill. Being an Appeal in Behalf of Men Released from Slavery, in which he argued that reparations were equally beneficial to blacks and whites because the system would provide economic justice to former slaves and their spending would help boost the Southern economy.
Vaughan’s advocacy for ex-slave pensions fueled the national debate on reparations and gave rise to numerous organizations during the last decade of the 19th century, none more prominent than the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association (MRB&PA), which historian Mary Frances Berry has called “one of the largest grassroots movements in African American history.” That movement was led by a woman.
In her book My Face Is Black Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations, Berry tells the remarkable story of Callie House, a seamstress-washerwoman, widow, mother of five and former slave turned activist, who co-founded the MRB&PA in 1898. The association aimed to provide mutual aid and burial expenses, and to lobby Congress to enact legislation that would compensate the formerly enslaved, especially the elderly, for their unpaid years of labor. “If the Government had the right to free us,” House stated, “she [the U.S.] had a right to make some provision for us and since she did not make it soon after Emancipation she ought to make it now.” House’s passion and ability as a grassroots organizer were unmatched as she crisscrossed the nation urging blacks to exercise their Constitutional rights. In 1899, the first bill introduced on behalf of the association in both houses of Congress (S. 1176) was simply titled, “A Bill to provide pensions for freedmen and so forth.” By the early 20th century, according to government figures, the MRB&PA had an estimated 300,000 members, all “demanding a law ordering reparations for slavery.”
But the federal government was not amused. In fact, House became a target. The Post Office Department used its anti-fraud powers against the movement, especially against the MRB&PA, issuing a fraud order against House in September 1899. Though House fought back, the harassment continued, as notices were issued to local post offices ordering them to deny any money orders made out to the association or any of its officials. Association literature and letters, or anything addressed to the association officers, were not allowed to be distributed. The campaign to stop House, “a thirty-three-year-old former slave, seamstress and laundress with no right to vote,” as Berry highlights, continued for almost two decades.
Yet, despite the government’s relentless character-assassination campaign, which tarnished her reputation even among African Americans, in 1915 House’s group sued the federal government.
The historic case Johnson v. McAdoo is the first documented federal litigation for reparations for slavery. The class-action suit started from the idea that $68,073,388.99 that had been taken as a cotton tax was actually owed to the people who had produced that cotton. The District Court in the nation’s capital, and the U.S. Supreme Court on appeal, which held that the U.S. was safeguarded against such suits. And after House had the audacity to bring her suit, in 1917 the MRB&PA leader was arrested, convicted of mail fraud and jailed. Despite her conviction, ex-slaves continued to petition the federal government. The reparations movement remained on life support until 1922 when the federal government finally succeed to shut it down.
In 1995, the Johnson v. McAdoo rationalization was repeated when African American plaintiffs, under the collective name “Cato,” attempted to sue the United States for reparations in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Again, a judge claimed U.S. immunity. As historian Ana Lucia Araujo writes in her book Reparations for Slavery: and the Slave Trade, “Because the government of the United States must agree to be prosecuted, a successful outcome for these lawsuits is ‘nearly impossible.’”
Nearly a century after the original lawsuit, and more than 150 years after the end of slavery, that logic remains difficult to get around — but they who feel that Callie House’s logic also holds are clearly not done fighting.
Historians’ perspectives on how the past informs the present
Arica L. Coleman is a scholar of U.S. history and the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia and a former chair of the Committee on the Status of African American, Latino/a, Asian American, and Native American (ALANA) Historians and ALANA Histories at the Organization of American Historians.