U.S. reparations for slavery sounded dumb, until now

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Sunday, November 5, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — I’ve always thought talk of reparations for slavery was absurd — a notion whose time had passed.

Nobody alive was a slave or owned one. You can’t make good on an evil that ended 135 years ago. We’ve moved far beyond slavery into an era of civil rights, a flourishing black middle class, greatly improved race relations. The very idea of reparations stirs enmity; to attempt it would rip us apart. Besides, it’s utterly impractical: Imagine determining who is owed and how much!

Then, last summer, I read that historians are now concluding that the White House and Capitol were built mostly by slaves. A local TV reporter, working on a story on the 200th anniversary of the two buildings, found pay slips in the Capitol directing compensation to plantation owners for the labor of their slaves. A typical Treasury Department stub, from October 1795, calls for Joseph Farrah to receive $5 a month for "hire of his Negro, Charles."

The next day, I read an opinion piece by historian Eric Foner about how much New York, and the North in general, owed slavery: "On the eve of the Civil War, the economic value of slaves in the United States was $3 billion in 1860 currency, more than the combined value of all the factories, railroads and banks in the country.

"Much of the North’s economic prosperity derived from what Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural address, called ‘the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.’ "

Ever since, puzzlement has perked within me: All those years of slavery, so determinative of the nation’s course. How is it that we’ve never really looked at the details? Why have we never truly grasped the size of it?

We’ve said to ourselves, we know all about the stain of slavery. We say it now, when reparations come up. "Instead of looking back and wallowing in victimization," wrote Myron Magnet of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, "let’s just look forward. … Let’s as a society say, ‘you can all succeed,’ and get on with it."

But if we’ve never really looked back accurately, are we thereby hobbled in "getting on with it"?

Washington is full of marble acknowledgments of pain. We have a Holocaust museum. A Native American museum is coming, and a garden in memory of Japanese Americans interned during World War II. Yet there’s not so much as a tablet in tribute to the men who built our nation’s most beloved buildings.

We live in an era of verbal recognition of wrongs. Tony Blair has apologized for England’s role in the Irish Potato Famine. Australia’s prime minister regretted his government’s decades of seizing Aborigine children to be raised by others. East Germans, after 40 years of denial, apologized for the Holocaust.

Yet every year since 1989, Michigan’s John Conyers has introduced a bill asking Congress to set up a presidential commission to study the harm caused by slavery, and the effectiveness of reparations. And it has never gotten a committee hearing.

This silence, I’m thinking, speaks not of peaceful acceptance. It speaks of stifled need.

There are powerful arguments against reparations, some made by African-Americans. Walter Williams, a George Mason University economist, notes that American blacks are better off financially than if they’d never left Africa. Stanford’s Thomas Sowell says, "Anyone who wants reparations based on history will have to gerrymander history very carefully," for virtually everyone can assert some claim against somebody.

And there’s that practicality question. Randall Robinson’s recent book, "The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks," has some ideas. One is a national trust supported by government, corporations and other institutions that benefited by slavery, to pay for enriching the education of black children and for college tuition for qualified blacks in need.

City councils in Detroit, Cleveland, Dallas and Washington have urged approval of Conyers’ reparations study. Harper’s Magazine recently published a debate among lawyers about reparations, ending with an editor’s note concerning formation of a group that intends to file a lawsuit.

I don’t know how to proceed, or even what the goal is. But the eagerness of our avoidance now seems to me to testify to the size of our problem. And the debate itself offers hope. We have things to learn, at last, about how definitively slavery moved our nation forward. And how definitively it set some of our people back — back where neither resources nor dignity were allowed, so far back that the climb out has been harder to achieve than we have ever acknowledged.

Discussing reparations no longer seems absurd to me. It seems a notion whose time has come.

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