Black Women have Always Led the Fight for Reparations. 'They're Not Getting Their Due,' Historians SayHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, reparations
Calls for reparations for slavery and other atrocities committed against Black people in the United States have become more prominent in recent years - especially in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. Individual universities, churches and cities have introduced reparations efforts, and prominent organizations such as Black Lives Matter have pushed for reparations in their platforms.
While federal efforts have been much slower, Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee, D-Texas, recently reintroduced H.R. 40, a bill backed by President Joe Biden that would create a commission to study the impacts of slavery and reparations. According to historians such as Ashley D. Farmer and Ana Lucia Araujo, there has been a shift in attitudes about reparations among both racial justice organizations and the general public.
"I would say that it's moved less from a radical fringe idea and more to the mainstream as we've gone on," Farmer said.
But the issue of reparations continues to be massively divisive, with a 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll finding that only 1 in 10 White respondents supported the idea, while half of Black respondents endorsed it. Even among supporters, there is vast disagreement about how to go about it. Would reparations be symbolic or material? If they're material, what would that look like? How would we decide who gets them? Should the United States pay reparations to other nations it has colonized?
One problem is that the United States failed to deliver on promises for restitution in the immediate aftermath of abolition. At the end of the Civil War, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman famously ordered "40 acres and a mule" to thousands of Black families. But the order was quickly reversed, and any land distributed was rescinded and returned to White Confederate landowners. Since then, racial inequalities have only compounded, further complicating the question of what a resolution might look like.
These conversations are nothing new. In fact, the first known petition for restitution nearly predates the country itself. It was filed in 1783 in Massachusetts by Belinda Sutton, a formerly enslaved woman, shortly after the American Revolution. Although many men have historically gotten the credit for progress on reparation efforts, historians say Black women have led the way from the very beginning.
"I want to emphasize that Black women have come up with the central principles, ideas and organizational infrastructures since the beginning," Farmer said. "And they're not getting their due."
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