U.S.A: Call for reparations is not for handouts but for paying a debt long in default – By Mohamed Hamaludin

– By Mohamed Hamaludin

This is the second installment in a series on the debt which the United States owes to African Americans. The first installment dealt with the need for an apology for slavery.

Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833 and agreed to compensate slave-owners for loss of their “property” by borrowing 20 million pounds sterling, amounting to 40 percent of its national budget, equivalent to billions of dollars today.

Britain paid off that debt only in 2015, with taxpayers footing the bill all along, a fact not generally known until the Treasury mentioned it in a 2018 tweet and political activist Raheem Kassam posted the information online. USA Today followed up with a fact-checking  June 30, 2020, deeming it true. The slaves got nothing; it was reparations for the slavers, not the enslaved.       

France went a step further, using warships to force Haiti, which the slaves liberated, to agree to pay the equivalent of billions of dollars in today’s currency for their freedom. It took the Haitians more than a century to pay the ransom.

The United States also paid compensation to former slave-owners following President Abraham Lincoln’s April 16, 1862, Emancipation Proclamation. Those loyal to the Union received up to $300 for each slave freed and more than 1,000 got the payout, Tera W. Hunter wrote in The New York Times. The freed slaves, in turn, could get up to $100each for voluntary deportation “back to Africa” –meaning Liberia — or to Haiti.

But the U.S. did try to help its freed slaves. Concerned over how the country could protect the thousands who followed him after he invaded Georgia, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, along with Secretary of War Edwin A. Stanton, met with 20 African American ministers in Savannah, Ga., on Jan. 12, 1865. They asked the ministers’ spokesman, the Rev. Garrison Frazier, pastor of First  Bryan Baptist Church in Savannah, how the newly freed slaves could best take care of themselves. “The way we can best take care of ourselves,” Frazier answered, “is to have land and turn it and till it by our own labor – that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men – and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare, ”The Washington Post’s DeNeen L. Brown reported.

Four days later, Sherman seized the coastline from Charleston, S.C. to St. John’s River in Florida, Brown reported, citing Library of Congress records. Under Special Field Orders No. 15,Sherman on Jan. 16, 1865, proclaimed the lands “are reserved and set apart for the settlement of the negroes now made free by the acts of war and the proclamation of the President of the United States.”

The order covered 400,000 acres, which Sherman ordered Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton to divide among the Africans in 40-acre plots each to be rented for up to three years, with an option to purchase. The Army would lend a mule to each family. Thousands moved to the land and began working it. But not for long.

John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln on April 15, 1865, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, issued an Amnesty Proclamation of May 29, 1865, for Confederates. Within months, most of the ex-slaves were evicted from their plots, which were returned to their former owners. “Thousands of Black people left without land were eventually forced into sharecropping and peonage,” Brown reported.

The Southern Homestead Act of June 1866 proposed allocating public lands in five southern states to the Africans (and European southern loyalists) but that plan collapsed because of its six-month deadline: Most of them were under labor contract or working land leased through the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Another initiative sought to provide the Africans with pensions. The National Archives’ Miranda Booker Perry wrote that the argument went like this: “If disabled elderly veterans were compensated for their years of service during the Civil War, why shouldn’t former slaves who had served the country in the process of nation-building be compensated for their years of forced, unpaid labor?”

Nebraska Republican Rep. William Connell introduced a pensions bill in 1890 but it failed in Congress, under pressure from the Bureau of Pensions, the Post Office Department and the Department of Justice which collectively campaigned to discredit leaders of the pensions movement, including bogus fraud claims, Perry reported.

Anthropologist Jason Hickel wrote in his 2018 book, “The Divide: Global Inequality from Conquest to Free Markets,” that the ex-slaves had given “222,505,049 hours of forced labor between 1619 and abolition of slavery in 1865,” with a value of at $97 trillion today, Breeana Hare and Doug Criss wrote for CNN. University of Connecticut associate professor Thomas Craemer priced it at$19 trillion.

As to the seizure of the 40-acre plots, William Darity and A. Kristen Mullen, writing for NBC News, said the four million freed slaves would have gotten 40 million acres, with a current value of up to $2 trillion. Their 35 million descendants would be eligible for up to $60,000 each.

“The cumulative damages inflicted on black Americans who were enslaved and their descendants of course include slavery but they also encompass almost 100 years of Jim Crow legal segregation and persistent racism in the post-Civil Rights era continuing to the present,” Darity and Mullen wrote. “The latter is manifest in mass incarceration, police executions of unarmed blacks (de facto lynchings), discrimination in employment, and, significantly, the enormous racial wealth divide between black and white Americans.”

African Americans, they noted, comprise 12 percent of the nation but own less than three percent of its wealth. And data from the 2016 Survey of Consumer Finances indicated that the average net worth of an African American household is $800,000 less than for the average European American household.

In short, reparations, would not be handouts but payment of a debt long in default.

Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Guyana Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating in 1984 to the United States, where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a column for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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