Cash Reparations and the Broken Promises of Reconstruction

A recent Los Angeles Times editorial urged that “Skeptical Californians should rethink cash reparations” for descendants of enslaved Black people. The editor bemoaned results of recent polls showing that 59% of state voters disapprove of cash reparations, claiming that “educating Californians on the state’s role in slavery and institutionalized racism” is the main challenge facing lawmakers in moving restorative justice measures forward.[1]

Historians not only chronicle past events, but also place them in historical context to better understand the roots of today’s social, political, and economic issues. Anti-racism activists cite the enormous intergenerational wealth gaps between white U.S. households and native-born African Americans. When they promote cash reparations as one potential remedy for discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare, and law enforcement, historians have a responsibility to weigh in with relevant facts and background to help our elected representatives make sound, informed proposals.

The thorny issue of compensation to the families of enslaved Americans has vexed U.S. military and political leaders since the American Revolution, when hundreds of enslaved men were emancipated in return for military service. Eighteenth century Rhode Island Quakers led efforts to compensate manumitted enslaved people for labor rendered to their former masters. In 1783, the Massachusetts legislature awarded a £15 annual pension to a formerly enslaved woman from the estate of a British Loyalist, contending that “by the very laws of the land, [she] is denied one morsel of that immense wealth, a part whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.”[2]

On January 16, 1865, as U.S. politicians made plans for a restoration of the Union at war’s end, General William T. Sherman unknowingly rekindled the reparations debate with his famous Field Order 15, which allocated forty acres in The Sea Islands and other confiscated land on the south coast of South Carolina to Black families, along with loaned army mules, with the implied promise of future title to the property. By June, more than 40,000 freedmen had taken him up on the offer. Ironically, Sherman intended his declaration merely as a military necessity to relieve him of the burden of scores of indigent Blacks who had followed his army on its march to the sea. But “40 acres and a mule” became a hopeful slogan to freedmen, only to see most of these lands returned to their former masters a few years later.[3]

40 Acres and a Mule Slogan

Opponents of slavery reparations like Carter administration official Stu Eisenstadt, who helped design reparations for Holocaust victims and Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War Two, argue that the harm to formerly enslaved people happened too long ago and that cash reparations would be too costly and too difficult to administer. Advocates like Harvard professor and former NAACP President Cornell William Brooks cite repeated efforts for such reparations by formerly enslaved people during their lifetimes, like the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief Bounty and Pension Association, founded in 1894, which grew to more than 300,000 members. The U.S. Pension Bureau prosecuted its founder, washerwoman Callie House, for fraud and the organization soon disbanded.[4]

The failure of Reconstruction policies to create racial equality following the end of chattel slavery, the long and ugly rule of Jim Crow amid segregation throughout the country, and the halting progress achieved by Martin Luther King and other activists during the twentieth century consigned slavery reparations to the back burner of American discourse. Efforts by Michigan Congressman John Conyers and articles from thought leaders like Ta-Nehisi Coates revived the discussion and reparations became an international political issue during the past three years.[5]

In December 2020, The Brookings Institute declared that the United States was “at a crossroads of racial reckoning” following the death of George Floyd and the subsequent summer protests.” Among proposals to repair the harm done by slavery and other forms of racial oppression to Black Americans, cash reparations have been particularly controversial. Support of such proposals splits along racial lines, with 72% of white Americans opposed and 86% of Black Americans in favor.[6]

Historians are also divided on the topic of cash reparations for slavery. While most scholars acknowledge that slavery led directly to today’s racial wealth and health disparities, many of these same educators doubt that direct financial compensation to descendants of enslaved Black Americans is a correct or practical remedy for this complex problem.

For those of us who have spent years researching and publishing Black American history, one significant hurdle in this approach is determining eligibility for cash reparations. Despite vast improvements in digitization and access to primary sources, it remains extremely difficult, if not impossible in many cases, to prove one’s ancestry from enslaved people. Typical resources such as census data and vital records were not collected in enough detail to prove such connections. The few applicants for a prospective cash reparation payment who are lucky enough to find a relevant military pension, Freedman’s Bureau, or Slave Narrative record would have a good chance at establishing eligibility, while most applicants would be compelled to provide hearsay or best guess evidence, leading to inequities, and subjecting the proposed program to fraud and misuse.

Another issue with cash reparations is that it does not address the larger, systemic racial issues that persist in our society. When former President Barack Obama was asked why he did not promote reparation legislation during his terms in office, despite his belief that such measures were justified, he cited “the politics of white resistance and resentment, the talk of welfare queens, and the talk of the undeserving poor and the backlash against affirmative action…that made the prospect of actually proposing any kind of coherent, meaningful reparations program struck me as, politically, not only a non-starter but potentially counterproductive.”[7]

Cash reparations are a well-publicized and widely unpopular remedy that inhibits a rational discussion of other less divisive and potentially more effective reparations measures. Such proposals also risk promoting a “one and done” mentality that avoids tackling the larger, complex issues of race and equality. Michelle Bachelet, UN Commissioner for Human Rights in 2021, addressed public perception of slavery reparations as cash payments: “Measures taken to address the past should seek to transform the future. Structures and systems that were designed and shaped by enslavement, colonialism, and successive racially discriminatory policies and systems must be transformed. Reparations should not only be equated with financial compensation.”[8]

Current controversies over Confederate iconography and cash reparations for descendants of enslaved peoples remind us of the lingering impact of the American Civil War on the nation’s psyche. As we continue to grapple with racial disparities, historians have an obligation to ensure that our history of racial injustice is acknowledged and taught alongside the many triumphs and positive legacies of U.S. history so that informed policymakers and citizens can make progress on some of the most divisive issues in our society.

[1] Los Angeles Times, 17 Sept. 2023.

[2] “Confronting Slavery’s Legacy: The Reparations Question” in Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, Brown University’s Slavery and Justice Report with Commentary on Context and Impact (Providence: Brown University, 2021). Vincent Carretta (ed.), Unchained Voices: An Anthology of Black Authors in the English-Speaking World of the Eighteenth Century (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1996), 142–44.

[3] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863—1877 (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 70—71. W.E.B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860—1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1998), 393, originally published 1935.

[4] Gina Lazaro, “Historical Context and an Urgent Call-to-Action for African American Reparations,” Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Social Impact Review (blog), 16 Nov. 2021.

[5] Arica L. Coleman, “The House Hearing on Slavery reparations Is Part of a Long History. Here’s What to Know on the Idea’s Timeless Advocates,” Time (online edition), 18 June 2019. Jaqueline Bhabha, Margareta Matache, and Caroline Elikins, eds., Time for Reparations: A Global Perspective (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).

[6] Ashley V. Reichelmann and Matthew O. Hunt, “How we repair it: White Americans’ attitudes toward reparations,” The Brookings Institute (blog), 8 Dec. 2021. Carrie Blazina and Kiana Cox, “Black and White Americans are far apart in their views of reparations for slavery,” Pew Research Center (blog), 28 November 2022.

[7] Aris Folley, “Obama says Reparations Justified,” (blog), 25 Feb. 2021.

[8] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Promotion and Protection of the Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Africans and of People of African Descent against Excessive Use of Force and Other Human Rights Violations by Law Enforcement Officers,”, June 1, 2021.

8 Responses to Cash Reparations and the Broken Promises of Reconstruction

  1. “While most scholars acknowledge that slavery led directly to today’s racial wealth and health disparities…”
    Many scholars do not agree with that assertion.
    Overall, African American incomes rose relative to white incomes for the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Most scholars agree that income levels by race converged at the greatest rate between 1940 and 1970.
    Black Wall Street Journal writer and author Jason Riley: “No welfare program has ever come close to replicating that rate of black advancement, which predates affirmative action programs that often receive credit for creating the black middle class. Moreover, what we experienced in the wake of the Great Society interventions was slower progress or outright retrogression. Black labor-force participation rates fell, black unemployment rates rose, and the black nuclear family disintegrated. In 1960 fewer than 25% of black children were being raised by a single mother; within four decades, it was more than half.”

    1. Thanks for your perspective Bob. Not sure what you mean by “converged” here. If you mean that the enormous gaps in income and wealth narrowed somewhat beginning in 1940 that may be true but that was 75 years after emancipation. By then the failure of most efforts to achieve any sort of racial equality or equity was cemented after 1877 and especially during Jim Crow, leaving Blacks without the educational and employment opportunities to make significant progress and denying them access to the most important generator of wealth in our history: property ownership. I see Reconstruction as a colossal failure When we had a window of opportunity to intervene in a meaningful way to give Blacks a helping hand and instead solidified the racial division in our society for generations to come.

      1. Thanks for your response Mr. Dixon, appreciate it. By “converged” is meant, the gap narrowed, on a path where it would eventually disappear.
        Back in the 19th century the great Frederick Douglass saw the dangers from well-meaning social programs like the Great Society, and I daresay reparations.
        He said: “Everybody has asked the question, ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.”
        Current GOP Presidential candidate Tim Scott agrees. “Black families survived slavery,” Mr. Scott said. “We survived poll taxes and literacy tests. We survived discrimination being woven into the laws of our country. What was hard to survive was [President Lyndon] Johnson’s Great Society…..”,

  2. Interesting post. Historians also have an obligation not to ignore serious scholars such as Henry Gates who oppose reparations, and not selectively highlight franc tireurs such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. You act as if you believe the absence of a support system to benefit blacks post civil war was unique to them, rather than the norm facing most immigrant groups during the Industrial Age. As far as property ownership, both the white and black rural poor were victimized by the sharecropping system, and white flight from the South was also significant. I also believe there are in fact studies that demonstrate, even in the face of Jim Crow repression., significant black ownership of farms post slavery, and not just by pre-War free man of color.
    I tend to think that any attempt to quantify or qualify a standard for reparations, and identify, or exclude, a beneficiary class, would be catastrophic. Would we include individuals apartheid -like, based on percentage of “black” ancestors? Would Obama, Harris, Ta-Nehisi and Michael Jordan be excluded, as obvious beneficiaries of American residency? In terms of “structural reforms”, all it would accomplish is replace a vanishing system with one that would be rigid, proactively racialist and exclusionary. Self described academics love these bizarre, post-modern constructs. Of course, they were also the ones whose radiant city and urban renewal theories back in the 1940s through the 1960s proved so seductive and destructive.

    1. Thanks, John, for your typically thoughtful comments. If you read between the lines of my post, you can see that I oppose cash reparations for the reasons I cited. But I do not oppose some kind of restorative justice measures that could help narrow or eventually eliminate yawning gaps in income and wealth that have resulted, in part, from the legacy of slavery. Agree that some of the Great Society programs were misguided. But many did not address deep-seated racial discrimination in housing, employment, and education that persist today by most any measurement. I do think you present a false equivalency between white European immigrants and Black enslaved Americans who had been forced laborers here for hundreds of years. Lingering beliefs about Blacks as genetically inferior, resentment against formerly enslaved people, and racism by some of those same white immigrants who competed with freedmen and freedwomen for jobs kept Blacks from enjoying equal opportunity despite Constitutional Amendments that promised equality under the law. You are correct in pointing out that poor whites, especially in the South, also suffered. Keri Leigh Merrit’s Masterless Men is a good analysis of that situation.

  3. Thank you for sharing, David. I’m glad you included the 18th Century details, too. The stories of seeking and obtaining freedom from enslavement through choosing sides in the Revolutionary War is something I’m starting to read more about.

  4. I agree with Mr. Pryor that reparations to individuals are problematic for many reasons. I do not, however, share the reasoning of other blog posts citing the views of Jason Riley and Tim Scott, both of whom are very conservative and certainly do not represent the views of mainstream African-Americans on this issue, at least according to polling of African-Americans on the subject of reparations.

  5. Well done, helpful insights into an exceedingly difficult topic. Quoting President Obama was enlightening. Thanks.

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