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Plantations aren’t paying reparations, but have started programs to give back to descendants

The Whitney Plantation in Wallace, La., has been opened to the public as a historical museum that focuses on the lives of enslaved people. (Marianna Massey/Getty Images)

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correction

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Georgetown University sold enslaved people to pay off debts. The Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, which ran the university, owned the enslaved people. This version has been corrected.

Joy Banner is a descendant of people who were enslaved on Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation, and she thinks families like hers, on whose labor enslavers made their fortunes, should get reparations. But not necessarily in cash.

Banner, 42, wants to increase land ownership for descendants, which might take the form of a land conservancy or community land trust controlled by people whose ancestors were enslaved in the area. For 300 years, Banner’s family has lived in or near Wallace, La., which is about 50 miles west of New Orleans.

Having more control over the local environment is especially important to Banner because the region, referred to as “cancer alley,” suffers from severe pollution by petrochemical plants. Residents of the area face an elevated cancer risk that disproportionately affects Black neighborhoods. A one-time cash payout won’t solve this kind of systemic problem, she said.

“There are as many different forms of reparations as you can think of, because healing looks different in every community,” Banner said. “It’s my calling from God to do what I can to protect the descendant community and help us grow.”

The push for reparations, on both a local and federal scale, has recently made headlines, especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder and a subsequent racial reckoning. Evanston, Ill., in March became the first U.S. city to approve a reparations program for its residents. The $10 million project includes housing grants funded by the city’s taxes on recreational marijuana. Some praise the program as a solid first step, while others argued its focus on homeownership excludes too many people. At the federal level, a 30-year-old bill to study and develop reparations proposals called H.R. 40 was recently approved by a House committee.

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Some private institutions that benefited from owning enslaved people have taken steps to address that injustice, in part because they can draw a direct line from slavery to their enrichment. In 1838, the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, which ran Georgetown University, sold hundreds of enslaved people to pay off debts, and in 2019, the university announced it would create a fund providing about $400,000 per year to benefit the descendants of people it enslaved. This year Virginia Theological Seminary began paying reparations in cash to the descendants of people who labored there during slavery and Jim Crow, going back to the seminary’s founding in 1823. It is drawing those payments from a $1.7 million endowment fund.

Plantations that now serve as museums have worked in recent years to better acknowledge the experiences of enslaved people, rather than focusing on those of enslavers. Although none has implemented a formal reparations program, some have launched scholarship programs to benefit their Black descendants.

Banner will sit on both sides of the negotiating table as Whitney’s director of communications and a co-founder of the Descendants Project, which advocates for the descendants of people enslaved in the area.

Although reparations have long been a politically divisive topic, Banner doesn’t expect to encounter much resistance during the forthcoming roundtable discussions between Whitney and its descendants — mostly because Whitney is already known for its mission to honor and uplift Black lives.

Whitney’s executive director, Ashley Rogers, said she’s willing to sit down with descendants to discuss what reparations might look like. However, she’s wary of “overselling” small community outreach programs as a substitute for reparations, which is potentially an enormous undertaking. “Reparations would be something much more substantial,” Rogers, who is White and not a Whitney descendant, said. “The debt is so big.”

Another concern is that Whitney’s budget fell by 80 percent because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Rogers is unsure of what funding would be available for reparations in the future. “The most important thing to me is that we do community work with the community centered,” she said.

Whitney Plantation opened to the public in 2014 and is known for its exclusive focus on the lives of enslaved people. Once Banner started working at Whitney in 2016, she dove into genealogy research on her family’s connection to the plantation, stories of which were passed down through the generations. The idea for the Descendants Project came about in 2019 as Banner sought to better include descendants in the plantation tourism industry, but after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, her goal broadened to one of healing and liberation for Black Americans. The Descendants Project aims to pursue reparations, protect Black-owned land, plan protests and establish standards for how plantations nationwide should operate collaboratively with descendants.

She sued her enslaver for reparations and won. Her descendants never knew.

Other plantations have started programs that seek to give back to their descendant communities. In March, Middleton Place in Charleston, S.C., awarded its first higher education scholarship to a Black descendant in the amount of $2,000. The idea came from a 2016 reunion of descendants, and while it was widely embraced, it was never presented as reparations, said Tracey Todd, president and CEO of Middleton Place Foundation.

“It’s more about right. It’s the right thing to do,” Todd said. The annual scholarship competition, which requires applicants to submit essays, recommendation letters and transcripts, is also open to the children of Black foundation employees, so it’s possible for a future award to end up with a non-descendant.

Middleton has worked hard to develop relationships with hundreds of descendants, hosting regular reunions and slowly building trust, said Todd. Until 2006, White and Black descendants held separate reunions, but they have held joint gatherings ever since. Middleton’s Black descendants have contributed to the plantation’s storytelling and board of trustees.

Middleton’s scholarship is funded in part by revenue from weddings held on the property, a practice that has been criticized by many as offensive. A 2019 Color of Change protest caused the Knot, Pinterest and other wedding planning platforms to stop promoting content that romanticizes slavery. Todd said that one of the first conversations that Middleton has with couples is about their payments supporting an educational mission, which includes tours that explore the lives of enslaved people.

In the future, Todd said he wants the scholarship program to grow and include more recipients at higher monetary levels. He would also like to see a recipient who’s studying horticulture, history, education or related subjects, and possibly cultivate that person into a future Middleton employee.

In 2019, Virginia’s Monticello began giving its own higher education scholarships to Black descendants, but unlike at Middleton, there is no competition for them. Any Black descendant with a postsecondary education plan can claim their one-time $5,000 award. Monticello does host weddings; the scholarship program is funded through private individual donations. The total amount awarded varies each year with the number of claimants, which is 10 for 2021 and includes students who qualified in 2020 when many schools were disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“It recognizes the way families, not just in slavery but beyond slavery, were denied an enormous number of educational opportunities,” said Gary Sandling, vice president of strategy and chief content officer at the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which owns and operates Monticello. One of Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved men, Israel Gillette Jefferson, notably described learning to read and write as a hallmark of his freedom, said Niya Bates, a senior fellow at the foundation, making the scholarship especially fitting.

It’s been crucial for Monticello to build trust and maintain descendant relationships over time so that programs like the scholarship are collaborative rather than top-down, said Bates. Many descendants attend reunions, and for over 25 years have contributed to an oral history project that supports Monticello’s storytelling.

For one descendant, receiving a scholarship in 2019 made her want to finally visit Monticello and strengthen her relationship to it. “It was always a goal to actually go out there and visit to see where my ancestors came from,” said 20-year-old Christalyn Woods of Courtland, Ala. She knew she was a descendant from stories passed down in her family, and she learned about the scholarship after relatives participated in the oral history project. Woods put her funds toward tuition, books and fees at Northwest-Shoals Community College near Courtland, where she studies psychology.

Bates said that local models of reparations might help strengthen the case for a federal program. “The more institutions open the door to these conversations and make that commitment, the stronger the effort is to make a push for federal reparations.”

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