Ken Woodley is the author of “The Road to Healing: A Civil Rights Reparations Story in Prince Edward County, Virginia.”
The growing national debate over slavery reparations would benefit from the inclusion of this salient fact:
The Commonwealth of Virginia has proved that reparations for a catastrophic racial injustice are possible and able to achieve their intended goal.
From 1959 to 1964, in the wake of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Prince Edward County shut down public education entirely rather than integrate schools. Almost all white children were educated through a private, whites-only academy, with local and state tax dollars providing tuition grants. But more than 2,000 African American children were left without any formal education at all. The wound was devastating and festered for 40 years.
In 2004, the Virginia General Assembly created the Brown v. Board of Education Scholarship Program and Fund to provide financial support to Virginia residents who had been locked out of school as children. Those affected by the closing of public schools elsewhere in the state or, in the case of Arlington, Virginia’s rescinding of state public education funds during that period were also eligible, black and white. A month before the decisive vote, civil rights icon Julian Bond told me it would become the first Civil Rights-era reparations in U.S. history. Approximately 250 people in their 50s and 60s have been served in some way by the program, which continues today. They range from a 65-year-old man, locked out of school after first grade, who wanted to learn phonics and cursive writing, to some who have gone on to earn college and graduate degrees.
The Brown scholarship legislation, sponsored by Democratic legislators, was not shoved down one political party’s throat by partisan rivals. On the contrary, in 2004, Virginia had a Democratic governor, Mark Warner, but both houses of the state legislature were controlled by the Republican Party. The final vote on funding the reparation legislation was unanimous in the state Senate and nearly so — 94 to 4 — in the House of Delegates.
In the former capital of the Confederacy.
I was involved in the process on a daily basis from start to finish because the scholarship reparation was my idea. I helped write the legislation and worked behind the scenes with everyone from Warner to House of Delegates Speaker William J. Howell over the course of the 16-month journey from idea to legislative victory.
And, no, getting this reparation through the General Assembly to that nearly unanimous vote wasn’t easy. Most often it was a desperate struggle. We were nearly defeated more than once. One of the lessons I learned was this: Call those who oppose you on the telephone before you call them out in the media. If they accept the opportunity to make history with you, the healing effect is far more powerful than a narrow, partisan triumph would be.
Those who support reparations for slavery, as I do, can take heart from Virginia’s example, and I encourage those who oppose reparations to take a second look.
I am a white male. My ancestors fought on both sides of the Civil War. Am I responsible for slavery? Of course not. But I am responsible for this moment in time. We all are. Every American is responsible for the state of the union during his or her lifetime. Slavery is over, but America continues to suffer the consequences from those centuries of enslavement and the Jim Crow segregation that followed. Reparation literally means to repair the harm, to fix what is broken. We can, and should, do so.
Today, Prince Edward County has a Light of Reconciliation atop the same courthouse where officials voted to defund public education in 1959. A memorial on the courthouse lawn publicly proclaims “sorrow” for the county’s resistance to integration.
This nation can follow that example: create a national Light of Reconciliation on the Mall.
And at the center of this memorial place a permanent, public apology for slavery. Americans owned slaves. Let America now finally take ownership of that slavery and hold itself publicly accountable. Words of apology should be expressed in a joint act of Congress and signed by the president of the United States. That apology — delivered in a prime time address on national television — should include the Jim Crow segregation that continued to bar African Americans from privileges taken for granted by whites.
This is a vital step. Until we hold the truth of the terrorism of slavery and segregation’s chains to be self-evident, there can be no genuine healing.
Then we should follow those words with deeds. Slavery and Jim Crow affected every aspect of African American life. True reparations must do the same.
Enduring transformational investments are needed in everything from education and infrastructure to housing, workforce training and economic development in urban and rural communities with significant African American populations. Whole cities and counties would be lifted, giving members of Congress the opportunity to create real benefits for the communities they represent.
Call this approach the American Declaration Reparation plan because it would make our nation’s founding words ring far truer than they did in 1776. We can carry out the vision of all people given the equal right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We just have to choose to do it.