The Reparations Demand in History

Against the Current, No. 102, January/February 2003

Paul Ortiz

—National Association of Colored Men, “Address to the Congress of the United States, 1896″

We were stolen from our mother country, and brought here. We have tilled the ground and made fortunes for thousands, and still they are not weary of our services.
—Bishop Richard Allen, 1827 [See note 1]

Southern industry is but another name for colored industry, or the industry of colored people of the South, notably as this relates to cotton, rice and sugar.  Subtract what the colored people produce and the remainder would scarcely be worth the mentioning .  .  .  .And yet the laboring people of this section of the country are among the poorest of the nation.
The Christian Recorder, 1882 [See note 2]

EIGHT YEARS AFTER the end of Reconstruction over two hundred African American political activists in Florida convened an emergency convention in Gainesville.[See note 3]  Electoral fraud and political violence had decimated the state’s voting rolls.  The Party of Lincoln was now the Party of Corporations.

Segregation or “Jim Crow” laws were sweeping the state, and Black southerners were being purged from juries, jobs and public offices.  White supremacist Democrats urged that African American youth should be taken out of schools and placed in road construction gangs or work camps.[See note 4]

The statewide convention of African American activists suggested a new course of action to deal with the menace of one-party rule: an Independent Party or alliance with dissident whites who were breaking ranks with the business wing of the Democratic Party.  The “Bourbon Democracy” had helped railroads and land syndicates loot Florida’s public domain at the expense of the state’s small farmers, Black and white alike.[See note 5]

Declaring that “bourbon Democracy should be overthrown,” African Americans in Florida endorsed the Independent or “Readjuster” movement in Virginia that had “abolished the whipping post; re-enfranchised the colored people of that State; made free speech possible; commenced the obliteration of the color-line in politics and in civil intercourse which was revived by the Bourbons in the recent contest .  .  .  put impartial judges on the bench, elevated colored men to the school board; and appointed colored teachers to teach colored schools.”[See note 6]

James Dean, a graduate of the Howard University law department and president of the Gainesville Conference, used his keynote address (subsequently distributed throughout Florida in pamphlet form) as a brief for equal citizenship.

Dean answered the assertion that white taxpayers should not have to contribute to schools that taught Black children with an argument rooted in generations of unpaid slave labor:

It is sometimes asked that, aside from all questions of public policy, is it just and equitable that the white people should be taxed to educate the colored, as they are under our present public school system?  My answer to this is most positively in the affirmative; and I further assert that the reasons why it should be so, from an equitable standpoint, are stronger by far than any that can be urged in favor of it upon grounds of public policy.  It is a settled principle that runs through the entire business transactions of the world, that when a person renders to another something of pecuniary value, he is entitled to a quid pro quo, or something of equal value in return.  This principle is well founded in law, constitutes a bed rock in equity, and is taught by the holy writ in the living language that “the laborer is worthy of his hire.”

Calculating Unpaid Wages

Dean created a formula for estimating the unpaid wages owed to Black Floridians.  (Modestly, he only included the final thirty-five years of slavery in his calculations.) He explained how he would apply this fund to rejuvenate education and state government:

From 1830 to the close of the war in 1865 there was an average laboring population of 29,000 colored people in this State.  In equity and justice they were entitled to their earnings; and if they had been allowed wages during this period at the low rate of 40 cents a day, and board, their earnings would have aggregated the sum of $145,000,000—a sum equal to more than four times the assessed valuation of property in the entire State of Florida to-day.  This amount could have been judiciously invested, and under the present tax law we could have raised an annual sum of $145,000 for school purposes, $435,000 for the expenses of the State government, and $435,000 for the interest on the State debt. This Conference should take some steps looking towards a more liberal support for education, and petition the Congress of the United States for national aid for the same.

James Dean framed Black demands for equal education by reminding the people of Florida that African Americans had been robbed of their labor for decades.  The surplus labor of the many had benefitted the few and devastated the South.

Dean drew on the bleak history of slavery to envision a new society where “.  .  .  education substitutes the teacher for the sheriff, the schoolhouse for the prison, and the workshop for the poorhouse.”[See note 7]  It was a startling vision.

Four years later, the New York Age declared “America owes us a debt and it must be paid sooner or later.”  The Age based this claim on the fact that the slave had

.  .  .  cleared the forests of the Atlantic to the Pacific, dotted the face of the country with beautiful cities and by his dusky fingers made the fields to bring forth abundantly, which gave to every family a full table; erected manufactories and kept them supplied with material, netted the country with railroads, made hundreds of sickly streams navigable, and got to himself all the evils of a slave.  His doings before the war were enough to make him an American citizen.  He has a greater claim to this country than his other brother.[See note 8]

Formerly enslaved African Americans made claims on the state for generations of unpaid labor.  In the year of Plessy v. Ferguson the National Association of Colored Men informed the U.S. Congress, “While we are grateful for the millions which have been contributed North and South for the benefit of our race we assert that it is not one-tenth of what was due us for the fields reaped down, and the value of soil tilled and watered with tears or our blood.”[See note 9]

In the same year, a former slave H.C. Bruce remarked, “The labor of these people had for two hundred years cleared away the forests and produced crops that brought millions of dollars annually.  It does seem to me that a Christian Nation would, at least, have given them one year’s support, forty acres of land and a mule each.”[See note 10]

Due to Me For My Labor

How and why did formerly enslaved African Americans come to argue that they deserved compensation for slavery?  While this brief essay cannot fully answer this question, some preliminary hypotheses are possible.

After generations of bondage, enslaved African Americans had developed a popular labor theory of value, a sense of their worth to an ungrateful nation.  This economic knowledge was based on the experience of servitude in the midst of plenty, and enhanced by African Americans’ understandings of their roles in saving the Union in the Civil War.

Further research is needed into the religious dimensions of African American aspirations for slavery compensation, as well as the impact of the slaves’ informal economy and events such as the American Revolution.

A close reading of the slave narratives reveals that African Americans carefully gauged their value.  In 1855, N.A. Matheas, a fugitive slave was interviewed shortly before he fled America to find freedom in Canada.  “In reply to an inquiry,” Matheas “estimated his value in Virginia at $900.”[See note 11]

Escaped slaves understood their value to the nation’s economy because they had experienced the sale of themselves, family members and loved ones.[See note 12] Frederick Douglass introduced himself to abolitionist gatherings as a “thief and a robber” for “stealing” his own body to freedom and away from his erstwhile owner.  Because they understood their labor and their lives were being stolen, enslaved African Americans felt little guilt about stealing from their masters.

One ex-slave from Georgia, John Brown, explained it this way: “I never considered it wicked to steal, because I looked upon what I took as part of what was due to me for my labor.”  Brown was “sure that, as a rule, any one of us would have thought nothing of stealing a hog, or sack of corn, from our masters, [but] would have allowed [ourselves] to be cut to pieces rather than betray the confidence of our fellow-slaves.”[See note 13]

They Have Earned the Whole South

“Any history of the Civil War which does not base itself upon the Negroes, slave and free, as the subject and not the object of politics, is ipso facto a Jim Crow history.[See note 14]—C.L.R. James

On the eve of the Civil War, the abolitionist Wendell Phillips observed, “The Negro for fifty, or thirty, years has been the basis of our commerce, the root of our politics, the pivot of our pulpit, the inspiration of almost all that is destined to live in our literature.”[See note 15]

At the war’s outset, African American slaves initiated what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “General Strike” against slavery.  Dr. Du Bois asserted, “This was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work. It was a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people.”[See note 16]

The progress of the movement was uneven, and usually depended on the success of Union naval and land forces in a given locale.  In Maryland, the General Strike came in July, 1862:

It is reported that two hundred able-bodied slaves in Maryland, owned by masters in the West River district of Anne Arundel County, have laid down their hoes and refuse to be held in bondage any longer.  They offer violence to no one, but they refuse to be compelled to work for others without compensation.  This spirit is believed to be spreading among the whole slave population in the State.  Slavery may thus abolish itself in Maryland—saving trouble and expense.[See note 17]

In essence, these two hundred strikers joined the two hundred thousand African Americans who served in Union navies and armies in the struggle against slavery.  Dr. Du Bois estimated that 300,000 others served as “laborers, servants, spies, and helpers.”[See note 18]

African Americans reflected on the radical implications of their self-activity.  A powerful idea emerged in Black communities, North and South, an idea reflected in the lyrics of an African American battle song: “The Union must be saved by the Colored Volunteers.”

With the Union saved, what next?  The keynote speaker at a mass meeting of African Americans in New York argued:

The government, in allowing the freedmen to settle upon confiscated rebel property, for a small compensation, is but doing them justice.  They have earned the whole south by years of unremitting and unrewarded labor.  The uncommon valor shown by the colored soldiers in their battles for the Union, has wrought wonderful changes in the feelings of our enemies at the north…[See note 19]

African Americans in Maryland and New York had formulated the idea that they had “earned the whole south” through generations of unpaid toil, and now through military service.

Revolutionary Aspirations

African Americans’ experiential knowledge of their contribution to the wealth of nations—and their losses on Civil War battlefields—led newly freed slaves to believe that they would take over plantations deserted by their Confederate masters.[See note 20]

The 21st century’s arrogance in reducing ex-slave’s aspirations to “Forty Acres and a Mule” misses what tens of thousands of African Americans were also struggling for: revolutionary land redistribution and a democratic society.  As C.L.R. James noted:

The struggle of the Negro masses derives its peculiar intensity from the simple fact that what they are struggling for is not abstract but is always perfectly visible around them. In their instinctive revolutionary efforts for freedom, the escaping slaves had helped powerfully to begin, and now those who remained behind had helped powerfully to conclude, the self-destructive course of the slave power.[See note 21]

Black aspirations for land and freedom were stoked by the Union Army’s “Field Order 15” issued during the final month of the war. After being visited by a delegation of African Americans in Savannah who requested “to be placed on land until we are able to buy it and make it our own,” General William Sherman issued the Field Order which reserved lands in the South Carolina coastal mainland south of Charleston for Black farmers.[See note 22]

A few months later however, President Andrew Johnson effectively rescinded Field Order 15.  When General O.O. Howard met with the freedpeople in South Carolina to deliver the news he was greeted with anger and the statement: “Why General Howard, why do you take away our lands?  You take them from us who have always been true, always true to the Government! You give them to our all-time enemies! That is not right!”[See note 23]

To Secure a Pension

As late as the Great Depression, the aging survivors of slavery were still trying to gain remuneration for their unpaid labor.  The “Ex-slave Club” of Miami, Florida was organized by Rev. J.W. Drake, at St.John’s church, in 1932.

Members of the organization “being from 85 to 97 years of age, have vivid recollections of the emancipation and of their living on the plantations.  In some instances, these children were separated from their parents while they were so small as to have no recollection of their own father or mother.”[See note 24]

As the Great Depression deepened, these former slaves organized, and “One of the objects of the club is to secure a pension for the members, as they are nearly all in very needy circumstances.”

The survivors waited in vain for their recompense.[See note 25]

  1. Freedom’s Journal, November 2, 1827.
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  2. Editorial column, The Christian Recorder, July 6, 1882.  This paper was the national organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and enjoyed a wide circulation among African Americans in the southern states.
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  3. The Proceedings of the State Conference of the Colored Men of Florida (Washington: 1884), Frederick Douglass Papers, The Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.  See also M.M. Lewey, “The Florida Conference,” The New York Globe, March 15, 1884.
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  4. For an exposé of Florida’s penal system, see: J.C. Powell, The American Siberia: Or Fourteen Years’ Experience In A Southern Convict Camp (1891; reprint with a foreword by Blake McKelvey, Montclair, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1970).
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  5. C.  Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1951), 19-20.
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  6. “Congressman Bisbee,” The New York Globe, January 26, 1884.  For the Readjusters in Virginia, see: Peter J. Rachleff, Black Labor in Richmond, 1865-1890 (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 86-108, and: Jane Dailey, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000).
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  7. The Proceedings of the State Conference of the Colored Men of Florida.  For biographical information on Dean, see: Cantor Brown, Jr., Florida’s Black Public Officials, 1867-1924 (Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 1998), 84.
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  8. “Status of Afro-Americans,” The New York Age, June 30, 1888.
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  9. National Association of Colored Men, “Address to the Congress of the United States, 1896,” in Herbert Aptheker, ed., A Documentary History of the Negro People in the United States, vol. 2, From The Reconstruction Era to 1910 (New York: The Citadel Press, 1964), 766.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Plessy v. Ferguson legitimized the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
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  10. Dorothy Sterling, ed., The Trouble They Seen: The Story of Reconstruction in the Words of African Americans (1976; reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1994), 29.
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  11. “A Fugitive Slave,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, January 26, 1855.
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  12. For examples, See: John Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977).
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  13. Betty Wood, Women’s Work, Men’s Work : The Informal Slave Economies of Lowcountry Georgia (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995).
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  14. C.L.R. James, “Stalinism and Negro History: Part One,” in Scott McLemee and Paul Le Blanc, eds., C.L.R. James and Revolutionary Marxism: Selected Writings of C.L.R. James, 1939-1949 (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1994), 202.
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  15. C.L.R. James, American Civilization (edited and introduced by Anna Grimshaw and Keith Hart. With An Afterword by Robert A. Hill. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1993), 92.
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  16. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1935; reprint, with an introduction by David Levering Lewis, New York: The Free Press, 1992), 67.
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  17. “It Is Reported,” The Christian Recorder, July 12, 1862.
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  18. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 80.
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  19. “Our Domestic Correspondence,” Christian Recorder, April 22, 1865.
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  20. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 395; Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal For Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1964; reprint, New York: Oxford University Press, 1976), 285; Julie Saville, The Work of Reconstruction: From Slave to Wage Laborer in South Carolina, 1860-1870 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 18-20; Leslie A. Schwalm, A Hard Fight For We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 154-158.
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  21. James, “Negroes in the Civil War: Their Role in the Second American Revolution (1943),” in Scott McLemee, ed., C.L.R. James on the `Negro Question’, (with an introduction by Scott McLemee, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996), 108.
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  22. Dorothy Sterling, ed., The Trouble They Seen, 29-31.
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  23. Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal for Reconstruction, 353.
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  24. “Ex Slave Club,” Box 4, Folder, “Dade County, Florida Ex-Slave Stories,” Florida Negro Papers, Special Collections Library, University of South Florida.
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  25. For the continuing belief in the justice of slave pensions in Florida, see: “The Colored Department” The New Enterprise (Madison), March 5, 1903.  Capitalizing on formerly enslaved African Americans’ beliefs in the justice of slavery compensation, various “ex-slave pension agents” preyed on aging Black citizens with fraudulent pension schemes.  See: “Swindled Ex-Slaves,” The New York Age, November 2, 1905.  For slave pensions in general, see: Walter B. Hill, Jr., “The Ex-Slave Pension Movement: Some Historical and Genealogical Notes,” Negro History Bulletin, 59, (Oct-Dec 1996), 7-12.  Ironically, all Floridians were assessed taxes on what became one of the most generous Confederate veteran’s pension plans in the South.  See: “Florida Paying Veterans Better Than Any Other State in the South,” The Florida Metropolis, May 3, 1919.
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ATC 102, January-February 2003