By Mansfield Frazier
Back in 2001 when a team of lawyers, led by a Harvard Law School graduate and a Harvard Law professor, were preparing to sue the U.S. Government and surviving businesses that profited from slavery, few news outlets in the country deemed the story newsworthy enough to cover it. However, now-deceased Congressman John Conyers of Michigan (who had been in a leadership position on this issue for years) stated that perhaps the time had finally come to make some real headway in terms of bringing this issue of reparations to the forefront of America’s social consciousness.
Alas, we’re still waiting.
At that time, nearly 20 years ago, the notion of reparations was only whispered about among Black Nationalists and other Afro-Centrists. However, with the publication of “The Debt” by Randall Robinson, who at the time was the respected head of Trans-Africa (a Washington-based group that lobbies for fair US policies towards developing countries in Africa and the Caribbean, and was also the aforementioned Harvard-trained lawyer), the subject of reparations was becoming a regular topic of dinner table conversation in many educated black households around the nation.
Subtitled “What America Owes to Blacks” Robinson’s book served as a manifesto for the case Americans of African descent had — albeit sometimes quietly — been attempting to make for reparations for years. “For any issue of great magnitude to be taken seriously and dealt with rationally, it first must be set forth on paper in a cohesive and persuasive manner,” said Dr. David Miller, an associate professor of Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. “The work must be so strongly written that it proves difficult for any logical, unbiased person to make a fair argument against it. With the publication of ‘The Debt’ Robinson has done that for reparations … he has irrefutably legitimized the issue. Now it’s up to the rest of us to keep raising our voices until we are heard on this topic.”
Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree, the leader of the Reparations Assessment Group at Harvard (the organization preparing the lawsuit) said, “We will be seeking more than just monetary compensation … we want a change in America. We want full recognition, and a remedy of how slavery stigmatized, raped, murdered and exploited millions of Africans through no fault of their own.”
The group also included famed attorney Johnnie Cochran, and Esquire Alexander Pires Jr., who won a $1 billion settlement for black farmers who claimed discrimination by the US Department of Agriculture.
According to Washington-based writer Laura Peek, their efforts were just one part of a growing lobby for reparations to be paid to black Americans descended from slaves. “At least ten cities, including Chicago, Detroit and Washington, have passed resolutions in the past two years urging federal hearings into the impact of slavery,” Peek wrote at the time. “Later in January [of 2002] a new California law will require insurance companies to disclose any policies they held covering losses incurred by slave-owners when one of their slaves died. The state has also commissioned a team of academics to research the history of slavery and report how current California businesses benefited from it.”
The issue, however, was one that was still largely being ignored by the white press. “I think there is a feeling out there that if they don’t devote any space to the issue of reparations that it will go away,” said Don Toney, a retired black newspaperman from San Diego. “After all, it’s a subject that’s been around since the end of slavery. Some people tried immediately after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and Reconstruction failed to get reparations, so for opponents to say that we’ve waited too long is total nonsense. Our demands for reparations have just been ignored for a long time, and that’s not quite the same.”
Indeed, Robinson started off “The Debt” by mentioning how African-Americans have been systematically ignored in our highest seats of government: “I looked straight up at the Capitol Building dome in Washington and immediately saw the callous irony, wondering if the slaves who had helped to erect the structure might have bristled as quickly as I.” The monumental fresco covering 4,664 square feet had been painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1864, just as the hideous 246-year-old American institution of slavery was drawing to a close.
“According to the United States Capitol Historical Society, Brumidi’s “Apotheosis of George Washington” had been painted in the eye of the Rotunda’s dome to glorify “the character of George Washington and the principles upon which the United States was founded. Symbolizing the carapace of American liberty, sixty-odd robed figures are arranged in heroic attitudes around a majestic Washington.” However, in spite of the fact blacks fought bravely and shed their blood in the Revolutionary War all of the robed figures are white.
Similar to the institution of slavery itself, Robinson’s accurate portrayal of America’s case of seeming schizophrenia in terms of dealing with matters racial, angers many readers. “I had to put the book down from time to time,” said Rose Mixon, a retired schoolteacher. “The accuracy with which he portrays what has been done to our race is sometimes too much for me to bear. The historical dishonesty is frightening. Whites are driving themselves crazy trying to escape their responsibility for what they have done, and are continuing to do to us.”
In 2001, a local newspaper in Connecticut published a front-page apology for the profits it had made from advertisements for the sale of slaves. “There is a lot more happening around this issue now than ever,” said a spokesman for Congressman Conyers, who, at the time was the most senior black member of the House of Representatives and since 1989 had sponsored legislation urging an official study of slavery and its impact. Campaigners point to the precedents set by reparation payments to American Indians and to Japanese-Americans held in internment camps during the war and the fact that Holocaust survivors will receive settlements from Germany and Switzerland.
Many of those who lead the campaign at the time accurately argued that until reparations in some form are awarded to the descendents of those enslaved Africans the wounds of more than 240 years of that pernicious and evil institution in America will never heal.
Part Two: Is Reparations A Dirty Word In America?