Blogs > Liberty and Power > Sojourner Truth's Plan for Reparations

Feb 9, 2006 10:21 am

Sojourner Truth's Plan for Reparations

Today, many defenders of reparations are socialists and race-baiters, who want a pretext to empower the welfare state, attack free markets, and create perpetual dependence and animosity.

This was not always true. In the post Civil War period, many advocates for liberty called for giving land to the ex-slaves through proposals such as “forty acres and a mule.” They drew on a Lockean tradition that stressed that the slaves had earned just title by “mixing their labor” with the land.

But the practical objections to “forty acres and a mule” were also powerful. Critics raised difficult questions: Who would enforce land distribution to the freed slaves and how? What if Southern whites violently resisted? Would breakup of the big plantations ultimately undermine the property rates of other Americans?

Yet these obstacles were not quite as insurmountable as many claimed. Much “unowned” land was potentially available in both the South and the West. The Mississippi Delta, for example, was still largely an unoccupied frontier at the end of Civil War.

One of the more intriguing proposals along these lines came from ex-slave Sojourner Truth. Although she never learned to read and write, she won fame during the antebellum period for her forceful and down-to-earth abolitionist oratory. From the 1860s until her death in 1883, Truth campaigned tirelessly for a proposal that Congress reserve land in the West for the freedman.

Truth was no socialist. She had no patience for “lazy” freedmen who refused to work, lacked ambition, or tried to live the taxpayer. Here is a selection from one of her speeches:

"'Now, here is de question dat I am here to-night to say. I been to Washin'ton, an' I fine out dis, dat de colud pepul dat is in Washin'tun libin on de gobernment dat de United Staas ort to gi' 'em lan' an' move 'em on it. Dey are libin on de gov'ment, an' dere is pepul takin' care of 'em costin' you so much, an' it don't benefit him 'tall. It degrades him wuss an' wuss. Therefo' I say dat these people, take an' put 'em in de West where you ken enrich 'em. I know de good pepul in de South can't take care of de negroes as dey ort to, case de ribils won't let 'em. How much better will it be for to take them culud pepul an' give 'em land? We've airnt lan' enough for a home, an' it would be a benefit for you all an' God would bless de hull ob ye for doin' it. Dey say, Let 'em take keer of derselves. Why, you've taken dat all away from 'em. Ain't got nuffin lef'. Get dere culud pepul out of Washin'tun off ob de gov'ment, an' get de ole pepul out and build dem homes in de West, where dey can feed themselves, and dey would soon be abel to be a pepul among you. Dat is my commission. Now adgitate them pepul an' put 'em dere; learn 'em to read one part of de time an' learn em' to work de udder part ob de time.”

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David T. Beito - 2/9/2006

She was quite an original. She also spoke her mind on some rather puritanical theories on women's fashion.

Kenneth R. Gregg - 2/9/2006

You know, David, I just love that Sojourner Truth has become popular and that there are many websites which detail parts of her life. She was an abolitionist, feminist and so much like many strong black women. She was willing to speak her piece regardless of what others would say, and ready to make sure we would do right whether we wanted to or not!

William Marina - 2/9/2006

The Republican Party in those days was most interested in giving away land to the railroads, millions of acres, for speculation. One motive for the later National Park movement was to take more millions off the market thereby raising the price of what the "heroic" railroad politipreneurs were selling. What place did some ex-slaves have in that scheme of things! God, I do luv what we call Capitalism in this country. Gogol was right, "how much land does a man need? Six feet to be buried in." Today, perhaps only an urn!