Her mother's parents were imprisoned during World War II for being Japanese American. The Yamamotos lost everything — their home, their leased strawberry farm, their dignity — after the government labeled them "the enemy."
Her father’s ancestors were enslaved at Mount Vernon. Unlike the vast majority of enslaved African Americans, the Syphaxes became landowners, though it took an act of Congress to gain full recognition of their property rights.
The impacts of government-sanctioned racism course through both branches of Robyn Syphax’s family tree. That uncommon lineage shows how even token compensation for historical wrongs can reverberate through generations, affording a chance to heal.
Japanese Americans received reparations — a presidential apology and a $20,000 check — more than four decades after their captivity. African Americans have not.
For Robyn, reparations are a meaningful way to acknowledge the loss that both sides of her family have experienced — the “loss of being able to live a normal life.”
“Whether they were families that were uprooted from Africa and brought here as slaves or families that were put in internment camps, they did not have the same opportunities that everyone else had at the time,” the 28-year-old said. “The government should say, ‘I’m sorry,’ just like they did for Japanese Americans. This is the only way to start the healing process.”
But her family’s experiences defy simple conclusions about the role of reparations in making amends.
For Robyn’s grandfather, reparations made it official: The internment of Japanese Americans was a historic injustice.
For her mother, reparations helped crack open the door to her parents’ painful past, though no amount of money could compensate for their losses.
But for her father, slavery was too long ago to determine who should benefit from reparations, and he is skeptical of how cash payments would lift African Americans into prosperity.
And for her uncle, the plot of land bequeathed to his family before the Civil War seeded their wealth after enslavement, effectively becoming a form of reparations he said other black families deserve today.
Now, more than 150 years after slavery was abolished, congressional Democrats, most of the party’s presidential candidates and Japanese American civil rights leaders are mobilizing around reparations for African Americans.
Supporters anticipate a House vote on the issue this year, as well as its inclusion in the Democratic Party platform.
It’s the biggest push for reparations since 1989, when then-Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), inspired by the law authorizing redress for Japanese Americans, began introducing H.R. 40 — numbered to reflect the “40 acres and a mule” that the U.S. government promised enslaved people after the Civil War (and later rescinded).
For Robyn and her family, the attempts to reckon with history began in Arlington in 1825.
Robyn’s great-great-great-great-grandparents were Maria Carter Custis Syphax and Charles Syphax.
Maria was the daughter of Martha Washington’s grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, and one of his enslaved maids, Arianna Carter, according to historical accounts. (Martha and George Washington, her second husband, had adopted Custis after his father died.) Custis freed Maria in 1825 — 40 years before slavery ended — and gave her a 17-acre triangular plot on the edge of the Custis family’s Arlington plantation after she married. Her husband, Charles, remained enslaved as the chief butler on the estate.
Maria’s white half sister, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general. The federal government confiscated the 1,100-acre Arlington estate from the Lees for nonpayment of taxes after they fled during the Civil War.
The Syphax land was confiscated, too, because Maria did not have a deed to her 17 acres. Nevertheless, she and her family continued living on the property.
In 1866, Maria’s eldest son, William Syphax, who became chief messenger of the Interior Department, petitioned Congress to pass a bill returning the 17 acres to his family, and the Syphaxes reclaimed their plot.
Subsequent sales of the property gave Maria’s descendants the means to pursue education and professions in law, government, medicine and business, according to Robyn’s uncle Scott Syphax.
“Our family is actually a case study in what would have happened if people had gotten their ‘40 acres,’ ” said Scott, whose brother, Robert, is Robyn’s father.
Scott and Robert’s great-grandfather, Charles Sumner Syphax, became a Howard University dean and mathematician. Their grandfather, Charles Sumner Syphax II, became a doctor after graduating from the University of Michigan in 1924. Their father, Charles Sumner Syphax III, became one of the first African American developers in Detroit in the age of redlining.
The Syphax land, adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery, was acquired by the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II.
On the other side of the country, Robyn’s grandparents were being rounded up for internment.
Her grandfather, Mitsuo “Mits” Yamamoto, was 16 in 1942 when notices began to appear in Sacramento ordering everyone of Japanese ancestry out of the West Coast. Her grandmother, Jayne Yamamoto, was just 10.
U.S.-born citizens like Mits and Jayne, as well as their immigrant parents, were given just days to report to “assembly centers.”
Mits’s parents left their belongings at their landlord’s barn and a makeshift warehouse recommended by the War Relocation Authority. His father sold his new pickup truck for next to nothing.
As their landlord drove them to the train station, Mits looked back at the farmland his parents leased — acres of ripe, red strawberries ready to be picked.
“I can’t imagine what was on my folks’ minds — working all year for one crop and having to leave in the middle of it,” said Mits, now 93.
Japanese Americans lost as much as $6 billion in property and income because of their forced removal and incarceration, according to a 1983 federally commissioned study that adjusted for inflation and interest. The government froze bank accounts, labeling them “enemy alien assets.” Speculators took advantage of wartime prejudices to buy land for a fraction of its value.
Other losses were less tangible, though still deeply felt. After boarding the train under armed guard, Mits became “Individual #22034D” — the letter “D” denoting he was the fourth person in the family, after his parents and older sister.
Over the next three years, the Yamamotos were held in three prison camps — spending the most time at the “Jerome Relocation Center” in Arkansas, which incarcerated more than 8,000 Japanese Americans at its peak.
Mits’s family was assigned to a barrack in Block 2, closest to the barbed wire perimeter where military police atop sentry towers pointed their rifles inward.
Because of the wartime labor shortage, Mits was eventually granted permission to seek seasonal jobs in Chicago and Sarasota, Fla. — after answering a loyalty questionnaire in which he swore “unqualified allegiance” to the United States and affirmed his willingness to serve in combat for the U.S. armed forces. And in those travels, he encountered raw discrimination — paid less than white Americans performing the same jobs, detained by police while shopping and denied service at a roadside diner.
“In California, although we were called ‘Japs,’ we were recognized at least,” Mits said. “Then, we became nobody. Not black. Not white.”
Mits was 19 when his family was freed in 1945, given $25 each and one-way train fare. They returned to Sacramento to find their farm had been leased to someone else and their belongings missing from the warehouse.
“ ‘I’m sorry, too bad,’ was the answer we received,” Mits said. “We never saw any of those items again.”
His father, then 70, was too frail to farm. Mits, who had graduated from high school while imprisoned at Jerome, skipped college to help support the family. “We had to start from scratch,” he said.
Despite prejudice against Japanese Americans, Mits found work in a hops field and also pruned grapes. But like thousands of other Japanese American families who had dominated fruit and vegetable farming in California, Oregon and Washington, the Yamamotos never got back into the farming business.
In 1949, Mits was hired at Campbell Soup Co., packing cans for $1.20 an hour. His mother picked strawberries on someone else’s farm. His father got a live-in job tending to the garden of a white family.
They would never be fully compensated for the loss of their farming operation. Other Japanese American families received some restitution from the United States soon after the war, but the government paid out only a quarter of the claims for damaged or lost property filed under a 1948 law, according to a federal report decades later.
But life went on. Mits met Jayne through his best friend, who happened to be Jayne’s brother. They married in 1952 and had four children, including Robyn’s mother, Ginny.
For decades, the couple buried their experiences, rarely speaking of their internment.
Government resettlement policies discouraged Japanese Americans from congregating in public, speaking Japanese or living next door to other Japanese American families. And the Yamamotos urged their own children to assimilate.
“They have a saying, ‘shikata ga nai’ — you know, ‘it cannot be helped,’ ” said Jayne, now 87, who had been incarcerated at Tule Lake in California. “They said it was something we had to endure, and we did. We kept quiet. Our generation never said nothing.”
Meanwhile, younger Japanese Americans, or third-generation known as Sansei, began responding to their parents’ silence about their wartime experiences with political activism.
Momentum for reparations gathered in the 1980s. The Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians held public hearings around the country, allowing the older Nisei generation to speak out about their mistreatment for the first time.
But Mits and Jayne did not participate. They still could not bring themselves to share details of their imprisonment with their children, let alone the world.
The commission determined that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order to incarcerate Japanese Americans was spurred by racism and wartime hysteria — not military necessity — and recommended that reparations be paid to survivors.
Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act in 1988, with black lawmakers backing redress. But legal scholars said the law was narrowly framed so as not to serve as a precedent for any other kind of reparations claim. Only Japanese Americans who were sent to internment camps and still alive when the bill passed would be compensated — not their children or grandchildren.
Some in the black press decried Japanese American redress, with the New Pittsburgh Courier declaring it “the latest slap in our Black faces by white America.”
Some 82,210 former prisoners — out of 120,000 — received reparations checks and an apology from President George H.W. Bush and, later, President Bill Clinton. The rest, including Mits’s and Jayne’s parents, had already died.
At first, Mits did not think he deserved to be compensated. It was his parents — not him — who had suffered the most, he said. “They had something, and they lost it.”
Mits and Jayne gave half of their combined $40,000 in reparations to their four adult children “so they could get a better head start” — a symbolic transfer of wealth after everything that had been taken away.
Their daughter Ginny Yamamoto Syphax, then 30, married to Robert Syphax, and raising Robyn’s older brother, Ryan, put her share of the reparations, $5,000, into an investment account Mits had opened for her as a child.
It would take another 30 years — and a pilgrimage to the Jerome internment camp — before the full weight of her parents’ experience would feel real to Ginny.
During the trip last April, her father pointed out the spots on a map where his barracks once stood, and the barn where a fellow prisoner had hung himself in despair.
“The floodgates hit me — just pure sadness for my parents and grandparents,” said Ginny, now 61. “That was when I just totally realized the injustices.”
She does not think the government payout is enough for what Japanese American families lost.
“I don’t think you can put a dollar amount on it,” Ginny said. “It’s not just financial loss. It’s also emotional loss. You’re being uprooted from a place that, for my grandparents, was the land of opportunity. You come and work your tail off, and then to lose that sense of security of having a home — suddenly it’s all gone.”
At his kitchen table, Mits fought back tears, grateful to the younger generation who had pushed for reparations.
“The young people — they made things happen,” he said. “Thanks to them, our history wasn’t just swept under the rug.”
Cash compensation made the government apology feel more sincere, Mits said. He considered his black in-laws and the healing potential that redress for slavery could bring.
“You should pay for your mistakes,” he concluded.
In 1989, with the government poised to disburse $1.6 billion to Japanese American survivors of wartime incarceration, Conyers, the Michigan congressman, introduced his bill to create a commission to study reparations proposals for African Americans living with the legacy of more than two centuries of slavery and subsequent segregation.
It drew only two dozen sponsors. Conyers reintroduced the bill every legislative session until he resigned from Congress in 2017. Each time, the bill failed to move beyond the House Judiciary Committee. And while the House and Senate apologized for slavery in 2008 and 2009, the symbolic moves did not accompany action on reparations. Conyers died in October at age 90.
But for Scott Syphax, Ginny’s brother-in-law, compensating African Americans for the stolen wealth that their enslaved ancestors generated — as well as the government-sanctioned discrimination in employment, housing, lending, education and policing — just makes sense. Even the promises of the New Deal and the G.I. Bill, which helped lift white Americans into the middle class, were never fully realized for black Americans.
“It’s like the equivalent of a very layered cake of actions and laws that have led to the economic disparity that we have today,” said Scott, a retired chief executive of a real estate development firm who now runs a foundation to diversify corporate boards.
“When we were freed, not only did black people not receive anything,” he said, “there were active pieces of discrimination — both cultural and statutory — that blocked us from being able to create enough in assets to transfer onto successive generations.”
The net worth of a typical white family is nearly 10 times that of a typical black family, according to Federal Reserve data. Homeownership, one of the most important ways for families to build wealth, has remained virtually unchanged for African Americans in the 50 years since housing discrimination was outlawed.
Over wine and cheese at his home last fall, Scott, who also hosts a political talk show on local television, and his brother, Robert, a retired IT manager for the state of California, ran calculations of what cash reparations could mean for African Americans.
In one scenario, they divided $500 billion — an amount proposed by former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson — by approximately 48 million black Americans, yielding roughly $10,000 per person.
“You kind of look at that number and say well, okay, will $10,000 actually move someone into permanent prosperity?” said Scott, 56.
“I don’t see how you pay a segment of society that large the kind of money that would be required to improve anyone’s position,” said Robert, 61.
While he felt cash compensation was the best way to acknowledge how the government had wronged his Japanese American in-laws, Robert said reparations checks would do little for young African Americans segregated in neighborhoods devoid of jobs, education, even basic infrastructure. The money, he said, should instead be invested in educational opportunities and community programs for systemic change.
Then there are the questions that commonly come up when discussing reparations: “How would it actually work?” Scott asked. “Should Africans who came over, you know, 40 years ago get a piece of this? Who gets this?”
Their mother’s family had been sharecroppers on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Their grandfather migrated to Detroit at 17 to work in the auto factories — never having had the option of pursuing an education.
“Who knows who he would have become had his family had access to the 40 acres and a mule that were promised?” Scott said. “That side of my family deserves reparations.”
“Right now,” he said, “there’s a crack in the door in that there’s at least a beginning of a discussion — one that’s happening in more areas than just black dining tables.”
Thirty years after Japanese Americans began receiving reparations checks, their descendants around the country are beginning to unite behind redress for slavery.
“One of the things people say about African American reparations for slavery is the same thing people said to us when we were fighting for redress: ‘You should just get over it,’ ” said Susan Hayase, 63, a third-generation Japanese American who fought for reparations in the 1980s. But petitioning the government for redress of grievances is “the most American thing — a basic right guaranteed by the Constitution,” she told civil rights activists gathered recently in San Jose’s Japantown.
Public support for reparations has doubled since 2002, when just 14 percent of Americans believed the government should make cash payments to black descendants of slaves, according to polling by Gallup. In 2019, 29 percent of Americans supported reparations — with black Americans accounting for most of the increase.
Georgetown students voted last year to pay additional fees as reparations for the university’s participation in the slave trade. Cities are debating their own version of reparations for redlining, predatory lending and discriminatory policing, with the Chicago suburb of Evanston recently agreeing to create a reparations fund with a tax on recreational marijuana.
The House reparations bill, now sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex.), has drawn more than 120 co-sponsors, a record, according to Keenan Keller, Conyers’s longtime aide and a Democratic counsel on the House Judiciary Committee.
“Sometimes facts take a long time to penetrate, and the issue of reparations took that very long journey,” Jackson Lee said. “People are recognizing that the healing that is necessary will not occur with just the passage of time.”
One afternoon at Mits and Jayne’s ranch-style home, Robyn unearthed a box of black-and-white family photos from the hall closet. Tucked inside was a Manila envelope containing the official apology from President Bush — a two-paragraph letter dated October 1990, 45 years after her grandparents’ imprisonment.
Robyn examined the embossed presidential seal and read the blue type for the first time:
“A monetary sum and words alone cannot restore lost years or erase painful memories; neither can they fully convey our Nation’s resolve to rectify injustice and to uphold the rights of individuals. We can never fully right the wrongs of the past. But we can take a clear stand for justice and recognize that serious injustices were done to Japanese Americans during World War II.”
Robyn contemplated the weight of those words, reflecting on both sides of her family. Internment — like slavery — had been sanctioned by the government and accepted by most Americans as normal, she said. “But only one side of the story has an ending.”