Kevin Merida's Nov. 23 Style article "Did Freedom Alone Pay a Nation's Debt?" addressed a pivotal question.

The legacy of more than two centuries of slavery and an additional hundred years of institutionalized discrimination is visible today in the physical blight and sociological pathologies that affect far too many African Americans.

Whether in the form of individual cash settlements, trust funds for education or other social services or even an unambiguous apology, acknowledging that a debt remains from slavery and its legacy would go far toward expunging our ugliest historical stain -- and perhaps ameliorating some of our most vexing contemporary problems.

DAVID FISCHER

Takoma Park

No black American alive today ever was a slave. No white American alive today ever owned a slave. Through calamities such as the Great Depression, most of the wealth slave holders accumulated has disappeared.

How many white Americans owned slaves in 1861? Fewer than 10 percent. How many white Americans are descended from ancestors who arrived in this country after 1865? Quite a large number. In order for reparations to be just, they would have to be paid by the direct descendants of slaveholders.

But reparations still would not be just, because they also should be paid by those who are descended from those who sold neighboring tribes into slavery and the descendants of the Portuguese and Spanish sailors who plied the Middle Passage. And of course, African Americans seeking compensation would need to show that their ancestors arrived in America prior to 1808, when the slave trade ended.

Besides being a genealogist's nightmare, what benefit would a lump sum or stipend provide for the African American community? It might pay for schooling, better housing or better health care, but it also might arouse such enmity that it would cause more harm than good. This problem continues to nag affirmative action, a far less-controversial practice than taking money away from one ethnic group and paying it to another.

Due to the passage of time, the bitterness of American slavery cannot be alleviated by compensation as it was with Holocaust survivors or Korean "comfort women." The best course is to recount slavery in the history books and ensure that all schoolchildren learn about the mistakes of past generations.

JOSEPH LUCAS

Cambridge, Mass.

Kevin Merida asked some interesting questions about who is responsible for slavery in the United States and whether the U.S. government should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves. But he makes no mention of what is owed to those who gave their lives fighting in Abraham Lincoln's army to free the slaves or to the abolitionists and participants in the Underground Railroad, who opposed slavery at great personal risk as a matter of conscience.

One of my great-great-great uncles, for example, Richard C. Vinson, gave his life for the Union cause in a battle near Gettysburg at the age of 23. He never had a chance to get married or have a family, so he doesn't have any descendants who can ask their members of Congress to seek compensation for his loss.

Maybe Mr. Merida should ask those seeking reparations from the government (which as far as I know never owned a slave) why they do not seek compensation from the descendants of the slave owners themselves, many of whom presumably benefited from slavery.

The U.S. government has been guilty of many atrocities, but it did not enslave African Americans. It did free them (albeit much later than one would have hoped). It did so with the help of hundreds of thousands of Americans who have millions of descendants who do not expect compensation from the slaves' descendants, but do expect simple respect for their ancestors' sacrifices.

RICHARD ALLEN VINSON

Novato, Calif.

Why does every moral injustice have to equate with monetary reparations? Does this make up for such injustices? Is that the lesson we want to teach our children?

I don't believe that money will ever restore the pride of a people, reduce the hate between two men or bring meaning to death and suffering. It is sad to think that the rights and freedoms of human beings can be reduced to a price tag.

Wouldn't our efforts be better spent trying to build a better future than dwelling on injustices that can never be undone?

I may be idealistic in thinking that the only true good and justice will come from understanding and learning from our past and teaching our children to put aside their hate and anger, so that in the future, the motives that made these injustices possible will not exist. Is it so bad to think that there is more to us than money?

CARMELA DeLUNA

Herndon

Rep. Henry Hyde, like many whites, is quick to say, "I never owned a slave" (or I never oppressed anyone, or I'm not prejudiced). Why should I apologize or pay for something my ancestors did? they ask.

Well, because some people are descendants of slave owners and have profited from the labors of blacks who were never paid for that labor. How can the government justify apology and reparations to Japanese Americans, Native Americans and others and not blacks?

The U.S. government should issue a formal apology, in a formal ceremony, for sanctioning slavery.

And reparations, in some form, should be paid -- maybe not to individuals but in a way that would benefit future generations of black children.

JUANITA ADAMS

Washington