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What you need to know about reparations after the first congressional hearing convened on the topic in more than a decade

H.R. 40 calls for creating a commission to study reparations and the impact of slavery on African Americans and their descendants.

Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, left, greets Actor Danny Glover, before they testify about reparations for the descendants of slaves, during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, left, greets Actor Danny Glover, before they testify about reparations for the descendants of slaves, during a hearing before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, June 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Read morePablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, the Democratic presidential candidate from New Jersey; the actor Danny Glover; the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates; and many others were there.

The subject on Wednesday was reparations for slavery, at the first congressional hearing on the topic in more than a decade, on a bill first introduced in 1989 by then-U. S. Rep. John Conyers (D., Mich.). After Conyers resigned in 2017, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) picked up the practice of reintroducing House Resolution 40 at every new session of Congress.

After decades of being mostly ignored, reparations are being taken seriously among many Democratic candidates in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential campaign. Booker, who introduced the first-ever Senate companion bill to H.R. 40 in April, said during his testimony that the United States has “yet to truly acknowledge and grapple with the racism and white supremacy that tainted this country’s founding and continues to cause persistent and deep racial disparities and inequality.”

The Inquirer talked to historians, economists, and activists about the history of the quest for reparations.

What are reparations?

Reparations are a process of making amends, or repairing and atoning, for damages done through an injustice, such as the enslavement of people, the internment of Japanese Americans, or the murders of Jews during the Holocaust. There are stages of reparation. The first step may be to acknowledge the wrongdoing. That may be accompanied by a formal apology. Then there may be efforts to provide compensation — perhaps by the granting of land, or, in the cases of universities such as Georgetown, apologizing for their roles in the slave trade, or offering descendants of slavery admissions preference or creating a fund to assist them.

“It’s high time for a commission on reparations,” said Mary Frances Berry, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Black people were always demanding some kind of recompense for unpaid labor, but they didn’t succeed. Reparations were given to white slave owners during the Civil War when slaves were let go to fight in the Union Army. We have given the slave owners money, but not the former slaves.”

What exactly does H.R. 40 call for?

H.R. 40 would authorize $12 million to create a 13-member commission to study reparations and the impact of slavery on African American descendants, and recommend “appropriate remedies" to Congress.

Conyers proposed his “Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act" as H.R. 3745 in 1989. In 1997, he renamed the bill H.R. 40 as a symbol of the “40 acres and a mule” the U.S. once promised freed slaves.

The Wednesday hearing was before the House Judiciary subcommittee on the Constitution, civil rights, and civil liberties. The bill is now called the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act.” (Legislators will now have five days to submit any additional questions to the panel of witnesses.)

Why are candidates and others talking about reparations now?

In February, Duke University economist William “Sandy” Darity told The Inquirer that reparations should be a litmus test for all of the Democrats seeking the presidency in 2020. “We should be holding politicians’ feet to the fire on this issue,” Darity said. Darity has worked closely with a group that calls itself American Descendants of Slavery, or ADOS, that has used Darity’s research to argue that black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved are in dire financial situations because of the racial wealth gap. (Many economists, such as those who authored a report from the Center for American Progress, have noted that African Americans own approximately one-tenth of the wealth of white Americans.)

Some also cite Coates as having sparked a new conversation on the topic when he wrote “The Case for Reparations” for the Atlantic in 2014. Then-President Barack Obama said he couldn’t see reparations as feasible.

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What were the earliest movements for reparations?

In her book My Face Is Black, Is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations, Berry tells the story of a washer woman in Tennessee born into slavery around 1861. In 1898, Callie House helped organize the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association and traveled the South, lecturing and asking people who had been freed from slavery to sign petitions seeking pensions from Congress. “There was no Social Security in those days,” Berry said.

By 1900, the association had 300,000 members who paid dues of 25 cents. Eventually, Berry said, federal authorities charged House with mail fraud. “If you ask the government to do something — pay black folks a pension — and you should have known the government is not going to do that, then that was fraud,” said Berry, an attorney. House was jailed in 1917 for nearly a year. After her release, she returned to the house she lived in as a washer woman.

Did any black slaves ever win a reparations claim?

Ana Lucia Araujo, a history professor at Howard University, said there were individual claims for reparations (although the term didn’t exist yet) that date back nearly 250 years. Belinda Sutton was among the first black people to make an individual claim for a pension when she sued — and won — in a Massachusetts court in 1783.

Why did some activists ask that Wednesday’s hearing be rescheduled?

The hearing was announced just six days in advance. Some key activists, including ADOS founders Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell, said they had planned to attend the Angela Project Conference in Birmingham, Ala., this week. The Angela Project is a conference recognizing that 2019 is the 400th anniversary of black enslavement in the U.S., with the first Africans’ arrival in Virginia.

“They have haphazardly thrown together a hearing in order to give cover to Democratic presidential candidates who aren’t prepared to deal with the reparations issue. Economists, historians, and lawyers are the primary set of experts necessary to frame our reparations claim, not celebrities like Danny Glover,” Carnell said in an email.

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What are opponents’ problem with the bill?

Moore wrote in an email: “The bill is far too empty and dated, and needs to be substantially more detailed." He said reparations must not only address slavery, but redlining and discriminatory housing policies that created the racial wealth gap. He said the bill should state that only descendants of enslaved African Americans should qualify for reparations, that the “debt will be in the trillions,” and that there should be a mix of programs and cash payments to qualified families.

ADOS groups have clashed in social media with Pan-African groups who say that Africans are also due reparations for having their towns pillaged. There also has been criticism of ADOS for focusing on native-born African Americans whose ancestors were enslaved here. “Our reparations claim is not a global issue, just as CARICOM’s claim is not global," Carnell said. (CARICOM is a Caribbean plan to seek reparations from European countries for slavery.) “We have a specific claim against America, just as Haiti has a specific claim against France, and so on."

Berry doesn’t believe that every black person whose ancestors were enslaved should get a cash payment. But she did favor a “small group” who might qualify: the descendants of people who signed Callie House’s petitions. "Those who stood up at that time and asked for pensions” should get payments, Berry said. “We have a group of people who we can identify, the descendants of those who argued for reparations, who sent stuff to Congress while they were being under surveillance and whose leaders were put in prison.” Berry also has called for a “reparations superfund” that would award grants to organizations to spur black entrepreneurship or help people attend college.