The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The centuries-long fight for reparations

Melisande Colomb, 63, is a descendant of slaves sold by the Jesuits to fund a struggling Georgetown University. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)
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Nearly five years ago, Georgetown University students brought to light an unexpected event associated with the university’s history. In 1838, the Jesuits who owned the university sold 272 enslaved men, women and children to pay the institution’s debts. That history — hardly a surprise to historians, who know the Catholic Church was the largest slave owner in the Americas — triggered a call for reparations. A few weeks ago, Georgetown students voted to create a fund, financed by an annual student fee, to aid the descendants of these enslaved people.

Georgetown students were not the first to demand reparations for slavery. Fifty years ago, a group of black activists led by James Forman demanded reparations for slavery from churches and synagogues. Like today’s calls for reparations, those demands emphasized the horrors of slavery and its aftermath: White America represented by the churches and synagogues exploited their ancestors and imposed on them the “most vicious, racist system in the world.” Then, and now, the call for reparations is about the need to address wealth inequalities plaguing African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved.

There is a long and old tradition of black men and women demanding restitution for the time they were enslaved. As early as the 18th century, former slaves such as Belinda Sutton of Massachusetts formulated individual demands for reparations from their masters. (Sutton ultimately received a pension, though hers was a rare case.)

Collective calls for reparations emerged at the end of the 19th century, when it became clear that the post-Civil War attempts to redistribute land to former slaves and ensure full citizenship would not be accomplished. Thousands of former slaves gathered around the country to demand that Congress pass a bill providing them with pensions. But the movement was not successful. Its leaders, including a fearless formerly enslaved woman, Callie House, were prosecuted and sent to prison, accused of mail fraud.

Reparations activism resurfaced at the end of World War II. Jewish survivors of the Holocaust obtained financial reparations from the new German government. African American activists, who at this point identified themselves as descendants of slaves instead of former slaves, saw an opportunity to voice demands for similar compensation. Pan-African activists such as Paul Robeson, who signed the petition “We Charge Genocide” in 1952, evoked the “tens of millions sacrificed in the slave ships and on the plantation” and stated that segregation and Jim Crow were genocidal policies against African Americans.

Yet, such demands for financial and material reparations for slavery were not an element of the civil rights agenda, which emphasized equal legal rights before any other claims. After the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr., however, new black nationalist groups made reparations dominant elements of their programs. Because achieving legal rights erased neither racism nor the racial wealth gap that maintained the economic exclusion of black Americans, it was clear that more drastic action was necessary.

One such group was the Republic of New Africa. Founded in Detroit, its president was the author and civil rights leader Robert Franklin Williams, who had been head of a North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and the author of the influential book “Negroes With Guns.” The organization embraced the cause of reparations, demanding the federal government award land to African Americans for the creation of a black nation in a territory corresponding to the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.

It also called on the government to pay $10,000 to every black person in the United States (while acknowledging the true value owed was much higher). As they had with other groups demanding reparations, federal authorities prosecuted the organization’s members, several of whom were sent to prison.

It was in this context that James Forman issued his call for reparations, which was summarized in the document “Black Manifesto,” presented to an audience of 500 activists at the National Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, on April 26, 1969. He opened his appeal by stating: “We the black people assembled in Detroit, Michigan for the National Black Economic Development Conference are fully aware that we have been forced to come together because racist white America has exploited our resources, our minds, our bodies, our labor. For centuries we have been forced to live as colonized people inside the United States, victimized by the most vicious, racist system in the world.”

The document’s arguments requested that white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues pay a total of $500 million in financial reparations. According to the manifesto, the churches and synagogues were part of a capitalist system that made their wealth based on the exploitation of black people. The manifesto also outlined the future use of the reparations funds, which included the creation of a Southern Land Bank, publishing companies, audiovisual networks, a research center, a black university and an International Black Appeal to promote the creation of cooperative businesses.

On May 4, 1969, the Black Manifesto made news when Forman and other activists interrupted the Sunday service at Riverside Church in New York City to announce it. Forman justified the choice of Riverside by explaining it is “in the heart of the Harlem Community, as are a few other racist institutions” and added the “demands of Black people are Relevant to any church which is operating in or near a Black community, or anywhere in the United States for that matter.” By the summer of 1970, the National Black Economic Development Conference had obtained approximately $300,000 in reparations, contributions that were redirected to other organizations.

Despite the manifesto’s great public visibility, multiple requests to several churches diffused the initiative by spreading it too thin. Likewise, the National Black Economic Development Conference neither sought nor obtained support from the most important African American organizations. Its leaders distrusted official institutions and did not engage in legal procedures or campaigns to petition Congress, factors that probably prevented the movement from getting support from large numbers of African Americans who might otherwise have favored the idea of reparations for slavery.

As with previous calls for reparations, federal agents closely watched the bearers of the Black Manifesto. In the two weeks that followed its presentation, the FBI interviewed all individuals who participated in the Detroit conference. The Justice Department also held two special grand juries to investigate the group’s activities.

In the United States, the debate over reparations reemerged five years ago when Caricom, an organization of Caribbean nations and dependencies, released a 10-point plan requesting symbolic and financial reparations from European nations. In the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, the reparations debate has become even more focused and visible. Nearly all candidates for the Democratic nomination have agreed that reparations for slavery must be seriously considered. Whatever they decide, because the legacies of slavery persist, reparations activism will survive.