Slavery reparations seem impossible. In many places, they’re already happening.

Jamiel Law for The Washington Post

Slavery reparations may be the single most divisive idea in American politics. Advocates have spent decades calling on the U.S. government to assess how such a policy could be implemented and to enact a law that might offer financial restitution to the descendants of enslaved people. But minds are made up — according to a recent Associated Press poll, 74 percent of African Americans now favor reparation payments, while 85 percent of whites oppose them — and Congress seems unlikely to take up the matter. A 30-year-old bill that would study the issue, H.R. 40, has never reached a vote. Hearings this past June brought Ta-Nehisi Coates, Danny Glover and other leading proponents to Capitol Hill, and every Democratic presidential candidate backed at least studying the idea. The public remains unmoved.

Thai Jones is the curator for U.S. history at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library.

Yet, for some African Americans, reparations are within reach. In the past few years, several groups have found success pursuing restitution at the local level, instead of awaiting aid that the federal government is disinclined to give. New policies in Chicago and at Georgetown University suggest a specific set of conditions that could lead to action: an institution culpable in the past and still in existence; a discrete and identifiable population able to show that they or their ancestors suffered harm; and a community to fight on the claimants’ behalf. At the local level, activists have more immediate access to institutional pressure points, while decision-makers are often less shielded from criticism and thus more likely to yield.

That class of organizations can include cities and schools, as well as churches, the military and even corporations. Thus far, reparations payments from such institutions — whether realized or promised — have totaled in the tens of millions of dollars. And it could be just the beginning. All politics is local; for now, so are reparations.

The two institutions leading the way took very different approaches. In 2015, Chicago enacted a reparations ordinance covering hundreds of African Americans tortured by police from the 1970s to the 1990s. The law calls for $5.5 million in financial compensation, as well as hundreds of thousands more for a public memorial, and a range of assistance related to health, education and emotional well-being. Then, last spring, students at Georgetown University voted to create a fund that would raise $400,000 annually to benefit the descendants of almost 300 enslaved people sold by the college in the 1830s.

A few dozen torture victims. A few thousand descendants of a slave sale. The numbers are not statistically significant in the context of the millions descended from enslaved African Americans. One form of reparations offers restitution for living victims who suffered in the recent past. The other focuses on descendants many generations removed from the original injury. In Chicago, survivors received direct financial awards; at Georgetown, the money will be spent on charities and other indirect benefits.

People jam the hallways of the Rayburn House Office Building to try to get into a reparations hearing last June. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

But these two examples nevertheless offer a model that can apply to four types of entities: churches, municipal governments, corporations and the U.S. military. “Local action could be even more meaningful to descendant communities than federal policies,” Jennifer Oast, a historian who studies churches and slavery in Virginia, told me. Local players “have a much closer relationship to slavery, and they’ve got people who are willing to look at this history and do something about it.” That could also help develop momentum for national redress.

Southern churches of nearly every denomination owned African Americans. The Catholic Church was among the largest institutional slaveholders in the Americas. Episcopalian and Presbyterian congregations often paid ministers’ salaries by hiring out enslaved people to neighboring employers. Historians have located particularly detailed archives at Briery Presbyterian Church, in Virginia’s Prince Edward County, showing that the congregation there purchased its first three enslaved women, plus two male children, in the 1760s. Over a century of slaveholding, that single congregation owned many dozens of African Americans.

“Unlike Georgetown,” said Oast, “most institutions don’t have good enough records to trace the actual descendants of slaves who were owned by their institution. But they are often situated within descendant communities. Majority-white congregations, such as a Presbyterian congregation that once owned slaves, might make donations to support neighboring black religious communities. . . . Most of the slaves who belonged to Briery Presbyterian Church worshiped in Baptist churches at the time,” so Baptist churches would be proper recipients today.

Churches’ links to slavery have placed seminaries and religious orders at the forefront of recent reparations initiatives. In 2018, after discovering evidence of past slaveholding at several of its Louisiana convents, an organization of Catholic nuns decided to fund reparations for descendants. An Episcopalian seminary in Virginia that employed enslaved workers on its campus before the Civil War unveiled a $1.7 million reparations package last fall. In New Jersey, the Presbyterian Princeton Theological Seminary announced a $27.6 million endowment to fund scholarships for descendants of slavery, enhance awareness of the school’s historical links to enslavement and support underserved communities in the area. These institutions see these steps as necessary and redemptive. Publicizing its connections to enslavement “was an act of confession,” explained an administrator at Princeton. “These responses are intended as acts of repentance.”

Local governments present another area to explore. In the absence of federal law, cities and states might be lobbied to create their own initiatives — just as survivors of police torture successfully sought in Chicago. In the years before the Civil War, cities and states often directly owned enslaved people, who were burdened with onerous and deadly forms of labor. African Americans owned by the government of Virginia toiled in hazardous lead mines and ironworks. In the Richmond jail, slaves owned by the city were tasked with cleaning and maintaining cells, a chore that included emptying buckets filled with prisoners’ “excrement and urine.” More research is required to reveal the full extent of cities’ reliance on enslaved labor, but historians know that slaves fought fires for Charleston, S.C., cleaned gutters and repaired roads for New Orleans, and cleared dead animals from the streets for Savannah, Ga.

Taking these findings from the archives to the law books will require a mobilization of community activists, scholars and lawyers. Reparations at the local level — as well as on the national scene — need a political movement driven by historical fact and public sympathy. Action to address evils of the past often results from crises of the present. In Chicago, for instance, the decision to pass the 2015 reparations ordinance was linked to the rise of the city’s Black Lives Matter movement, as well as outrage over police shootings of African Americans.

American corporations with roots in the antebellum years are yet another site for potential redress. Insurance companies sold policies on the lives of enslaved people (for their owners’ profit, of course) or underwrote slaving voyages. Railroads used slave labor and profited from transporting cotton or rice produced by enslaved plantation workers. Past efforts to bring private corporations to account have failed (some lawsuits remain unresolved). But the new willingness to consider local reparations could signal a change of fortunes. A recent settlement in Europe suggests that future attempts might have greater success: The State Department worked with France last year to award reparations to Holocaust survivors who were transported to concentration camps aboard French trains. (Over the years, German corporations like VW and Siemens have also paid millions to Jews forced to serve as slave laborers during World War II.) This settlement included payments to the descendants of the original victims — a crucial precedent for any lawsuit focusing on slavery.

Moving from the local and institutional level to the national bureaucracy, one major enslaver is just coming into view: the U.S. military. It has long been known that enslaved laborers were used to build fortifications and man naval yards. But historians are now discovering another element of military enslavement. From the early 19th century through the end of the Civil War, the Army provided its officers with a monthly stipend to cover salaries for their personal servants. If these servants happened to be enslaved, then the officer could simply keep the money for himself as a bonus payment. This was a powerful inducement to purchase slaves. At least half of all officers took advantage, according to Yoav Hamdani, a doctoral student at Columbia University who is researching this topic, meaning thousands of enslaved people owed their bondage directly to federal policy. Among the documents Hamdani has discovered are pay vouchers tied to future U.S. president Zachary Taylor as well as future Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

The most famous military slave was Dred Scott, who was taken to Fort Snelling, Minn., by his owner in the 1830s. Asserting that his presence in a free territory meant he was no longer enslaved, Scott sued for his freedom but lost when the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans could not claim the rights of citizenship. Other military slaves encountered all of the hardships — family separation, forced labor, vulnerability to sexual assault — faced by enslaved people elsewhere, while also dealing with the danger of war. Some enslaved people found themselves posted in isolated forts in the West. One officer whipped his slave to death, Hamdani found; another man in bondage died when his owner’s unit was attacked by Native Americans on the frontier.

A frequent objection to reparations is that we cannot calculate what is owed; military record-keeping shows that’s not always the case. Military slavery “has left a paper trail,” Hamdani says. Pay vouchers in the National Archives provide names and other information about the enslaved. And there are thousands of such records, which could be used to find descendants of the Army’s slaves. “This could lead to reparations,” Hamdani told me, “whether it is part of some official ceremonies or recognition, such as creating a decoration that would go to the descendants. The bottom line is the U.S. Army must reckon with its slaveholding past.” Although some monuments celebrate the sacrifices of black service members, no official has begun reckoning publicly with the legacy of military enslavement.

None of these policies can replace national action. Even combining their efforts, local and corporate entities couldn’t afford the scale of repayment — often estimated in the billions of dollars — that a federal reparations law would probably entail. Nor can individual expressions of remorse stand in for the “formal apology on behalf of the people of the United States for the perpetration of gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity on African slaves and their descendants” called for in H.R. 40. A federal law awarding reparations to the descendants of enslaved African Americans would be a matchless act of remorse and restitution. A systematic crime requires a systematic response. No partial undertaking can substitute for such a step.

But these local and small-scale endeavors show that policymakers needn’t choose between enacting a universal solution and living with injustice. Face-to-face conversations allow each community to think about the reparations that are most significant to them, and they can be much more than a short-term alternative. In Chicago, the city council voted unanimously, across racial lines, to pass its reparations act. At Georgetown, students voted nearly 2-to-1 for reparations, despite the fact that less than 10 percent of the student body is black. Local reparations could represent an incremental reckoning en route to ultimate reconciliation.

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that former mayor Mike Bloomberg was the only Democratic presidential candidate not to back a study of reparations. He has.]

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