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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
 Los Angeles Times, 17 Sept. 2023.
 “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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 Aris Folley, “Obama says Reparations Justified,” thehill.com (blog), 25 Feb. 2021.
 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,” undocs.org, June 1, 2021.