Part I: History and Black Land Stewardship.
“The middle passage itself was a rupture in the Atlantic ocean’s ecological maintenance.” Damani Maurice
Black people within the United States and across the globe have always demanded reparations for goverment-sanctioned and industry-demanded slavery, genocide, colonization, and anti-Black racism. Historically and currently, reparations efforts move from the regional and targeted to a global collective stance connecting the traumas of race-based slavery and colonialism established by trans-Atlantic human trafficking (Maafa-Middle Passage), as well as white supremacist imperialism within continental Africa and across the world. With the advent of social media, reparations demands have gained momentum and critical mass.
Black-led reparations movements within the Caribbean, Central and South America, continental Africa, and the Pacific support and bring light to reparations demands of Black people within the United States. However, politically driven and mainstream interpretations of the US-based reparations movement have been positioned through a limited perspective of the white gaze and context of white supremacy culture. From the symbolic and political to the fictional, reparations seem to not move beyond the appeasement of white masses or the white imagination that centers reparations as cataclysmic. In terms of the United States—for white America—Black Americans demanding and receiving reparations is a disaster, not the current climate crisis.
The last 500 years have devastated the earth, countless ecosystems, and life on this planet. Slavery, colonialism, and genocide created a world where extraction, domination, and waste have been normalized as progress. And these systems of extraction have only become stronger and more technologically advanced. Reparations for Black people are about recreating a world with fresh air, clean water, unpolluted soil and oceans, global indigenous sovereignty, Black liberation, and interspecies existence. Reparatory justice is environmental and climate justice. Reparations are central for world-making projects that are about ecological justice and sustainability. Reparations will create a just present and future to resolve trans-generational harms and create a more equitable world.
In this two-part essay, I hope to add to the efforts of Black US-led reparations organizations, activists and scholars that actively recenter reparations as liberatory, world-making, connective, grounded in Black futures, and critical to sustainability and environmental justice.
“The middle passage itself was a rupture in the Atlantic ocean’s ecological maintenance. ” — Damani Maurice
What are Reparations?
Reparations are a normalized and well-documented part of European-based modern Western societies. They come in forms of monetary and symbolic restitution for harms inflicted by a government and/or institutions and industries supported by the state.
European Jewish survivors of WW2’s genocide and Japanese and Japanese American survivors of US internment have received reparations. Although reparatory justice stands as universally important to addressing and acknowledging state-sanctioned violence and harm, race and racial hierarchy have always been determining factors of which people could justly appeal for and are “deserving” of reparations. In the United States, Black descendants of enslaved people that endured the well-documented traumas of slavery and violence of Jim Crow segregation and economic terrorism have always demanded and fought for reparations. However, racism seems to “complicate” the plausibility of reparations whenever Black people push for reparatory justice.
In terms of slavery and abolition, white European enslavers and colonizers received reparations for their “loss of property” throughout the 1800s. In 1825, 20 years after the Haitian Revolution—and backed by the United States government—France forced Haiti to pay a 150 million dollar indemnity for land and human property loss. In 1828, the French government compiled a six-volume list with nearly 8,000 names of enslavers from former-Saint Domingue (Haiti) and their French descendants that qualified for reparation payments. Over the next 122 years, until 1947 and with the involvement of Citibank, NPR posits Haiti paid enslavers and their descendants close to 30 billion dollars. A recent New York Times article calculated that 560 million dollars was paid out to France and French enslavers, which holds an opportunity cost range anywhere between 21 billion and 115 billion dollars.
Reparations for enslavers have been a normal and advocated part of white-savior centered abolitionism. When the British formally abolished slavery within its colonies in 1833, the government paid reparations totaling £20 million (equivalent to some £300 billion in 2018) to enslavers with the backing of banking magnates. British enslavers and their descendants received reparations from the UK government until 2015. European countries and newly founded white-led nation states in Latin America—such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Brazil—provided reparations to former enslavers as well.
The United States – Early Call for Reparations and Slavery
In 1862, as a wartime measure during the US Civil War (1861-1865), Abraham Lincoln signed an act providing reparations to enslavers in Washington, DC – “Act for the Release of certain Persons held to Service or Labor within the District of Columbia”. The United States government paid enslavers almost 1 million dollars (equivalent to 25 million dollars today) in reparations for the freeing of 3,100 enslaved people. While enslavers were paid around $300 for each enslaved person freed, formerly enslaved Black people were offered an emigration incentive of $100 (around $2,700 today) to permanently leave the United States. This emigration measure was part of Lincoln’s early advocacy for a nascently anti-Black abolition plan that prioritized “voluntary” Black emigration out of the US in an effort to save the union.
The first industrial revolution from 1760 to 1850 foregrounded and grew early capitalist economies into the “profit over people and planet” global force we know today. Slavery, human trafficking, indigenous genocide, colonialism, and ecological destruction undergirded the immense wealth from plantation systems producing profitable monocrops, such as cotton and sugar. US capitalism’s most prominent institutions are rooted in human trafficking and slavery. While financial subsidiaries of banking giant JP Morgan Chase assumed enslaved people as collateral for loans, the banking predecessors of Citibank, Bank of America and Wells Fargo all held leading roles in financing trans-Atlantic human trafficking of millions of people from continental Africa.
Additionally, New York Life Insurance Company (NYLI)—formerly The Nautilus Insurance Company—was the largest insurer of human trafficked and enslaved Black people. In the 1840s, NYLI sold policies to enslavers in the South that insured enslaved people against damages or death. At that time, the number of enslaved people insured in the South was the same as the number of white people with life insurance.
In terms of forced labor, using US census data from 1790 to 1860, it can be estimated that enslavers stole wages equivalent to 20.3 trillion dollars in today’s money from enslaved Black people during the first 70 years of the nation’s history. At the beginning of the US Civil War, four million Black people were held in bondage in the United States. These four million people carried an economic value of $4 billion in 1860, more than all the factories, railroads, and banks combined in the United States at that time. Human trafficking and chattel slavery are vital parts of United States of America’s economic, political, and societal foundations and exponential growth.
Reparations for the countless Black families human trafficked, enslaved, tortured, and murdered almost became a reality at the end of the US Civil War. In January 1865, William T. Sherman issued the Special Field Orders No. 15, which confiscated 400,000 acres of southern land as Union property—a strip of coastline stretching from Charleston, South Carolina to Florida, including Georgia’s Sea Islands and the mainland 30 miles in from the coast. The order provided allotments of “40 acres and a mule” to almost 40,000 Black families. Many of these lands were already being operated by formerly enslaved people.
Special Field Orders No. 15 gave an inkling of hope for reparatory justice in the form of land for formerly enslaved Black people. However, this initial step towards reparations, supported by Lincoln at the end of the war, was thwarted by Andrew Johnson as he took post as president in April 1865 after Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson supported the former Confederacy’s easy transition back into power, racist Black Codes legislation and establishment of the Ku Klux Klan in his home state of Tennessee. In his earliest command as president, he reversed the special field order through the newly formed Freedmen’s Bureau headed by General O.O. Howard.
Community members organized to fight the reversal and permanent loss of community land. The written statement below is to O.O. Howard and President Johnson from three Black community members representing Edisto Island, South Carolina families:
We are at the mercy of those who are combined to prevent us from getting land enough to lay our fathers bones upon…You will see this is not the condition of really freemen.
You ask us to forgive the land owners of our island, You only lost your right arm in (the civil) war and might forgive them. The man who tied me to a tree and gave me 39 lashes and who stripped and flogged my mother and my sister and who will not let me stay in his empty hut, except I will do his planting and be satisfied with his price and who combines with others to keep away land from me – well knowing I would not have anything to do with him if I had land of my own.–that man, I cannot well forgive….seeing how he tries to keep me in a condition of helplessness…landless, homeless, voteless. We can only pray to god and hope for his help… (Signers): Committee, Henry Bram, Ishmael Moultrie, yates Sampson
By late fall 1865, the reversal of Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 was finalized. Bram, Moultrie, and Sampson’s plea to the United State government demonstrates the fact that reparations was an expected part of post Civil War transition. Not only because Black people were pivotal in the Union winning the war, but also because the brutality and trauma of slavery called for restitution. During this period, enslaved Black people in Texas were held hostage as human chattel by enslavers until June 1865–even with the wartime Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th amendment (See Juneteenth). These 4 million Black people transitioned to freedom “landless, homeless, (and) voteless”.
Reparations in the Reconstruction and Jim Crow Eras
Despite slight gains in Reconstruction era laws and institution-building advocated for and led by Black people (13th, 14th, and 15th amendments), the Reconstruction period primarily served to buttress white supremacy and repair the union at the cost of Black lives and safety. In 1871, the US Congress established another white-centered reparation plan by forming the Southern Claims Commission for white Southerners loyal to the Union during the war to be compensated for loss of property. By 1872, Reconstruction began to fully unravel through a bevy of US Circuit and Supreme court rulings.
In addition to increased white violence against Black communities, the US government intentionally failed the Freedmen Savings Bank in 1874. Sixty thousand Black account holders, many formerly enslaved, lost 3 million dollars in savings—the equivalent of 65 million dollars in 2019 (not accounting for interest). The Compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction completely and the Supreme Court then institutionalized Jim Crow segregation and economic terrorism at the federal level with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling.
From the 1870s to 1910s, reparations initiatives for formerly enslaved Black people did gain traction. White-led initiatives were influenced by politician Walter R. Vaughn, who led the National Ex-Slave Pension Club Association of the United States. Vaughn persuaded Rep. William Connell of Nebraska to introduce H.R. 11119 to Congress in 1890, a pension bill for freedpeople. However, with little mainstream support and inquiries by federal agencies, Vaughn openly absconded with funds raised with Black membership fees — and was never brought to justice.
Meanwhile Black founders of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association (1898), Isaiah Dickerson and Callie Guy House, were imprisoned by the US government in 1901 and 1914, respectively, for organizing and fundraising for reparations for formerly enslaved Black people. Dickerson and House aimed to establish a movement for reparations that provided mutual aid support to its members along with campaigning for federal legislation.
To this day, Henrietta Woods‘ suit is the only successful reparations claim for slavery and human trafficking after abolition. After seven years in court, Woods won her suit in 1878 against enslaver and kidnapper Zebulon Ward. She was awarded $2,500 — roughly $65,000 in today’s dollars. In 1995, nine survivors of the Rosewood Massacre of 1923 were awarded $2.1 million from the state of Florida: $150,000 each as restitution for property destruction, and $500,000 for their descendants. After watching a recent episode of the TV show Atlanta centered on the topic of reparations, which depicted fictional interpersonal lawsuits that forced white people to pay restitution to Black families for slavery, I find these lawsuits particularly interesting.
Although these two successful reparations claims serve as legal precedents for future campaigns, the timing of them (150 years in the past and almost 30 years ago, respectively) and the overwhelmingly low settlements that Black survivors received demonstrates a lack of urgency in repairing and reconciling the generations of harm done to Black communities.
Land Theft and Dispossession
“From the Reconstruction era to the 1990s, white families, institutions, and state and federal governments stole and dispossessed Black land through “legal” channels and brutal intimidation.”
Advocating for land sovereignty and accounting for past and ongoing land theft remains the top demand for reparations. After the abolition of slavery, Black people were forced into predatory one-sided sharecropping arrangements that lasted generations. However, through communal efforts, many Black families were able to obtain land.
From the Reconstruction era to the 1990s, white families, institutions, and state and federal governments stole and dispossessed Black land through “legal” channels and brutal intimidation. This land transfer to white ownership greatly destabilized Black communities. Lynchings, near-lynchings, police brutality, and white mob violence functioned as everyday forms of economic and environmental terrorism and tools for land dispossession throughout the 20th century.
The Great Migration (circa 1900-1970) of Black Americans from southern states to urban northern states and the west, demonstrates the extent of this violence. In 1910, Black people held title to over 14 million acres of land. In Mississippi alone, Black farmland totaled 2.2 million acres — some 14 percent of all Black-owned agricultural land in the country, and the most of any state. The number of Black farmers went from 1 million in 1914 to just 18,000 in 1992. A USDA study shows a 98% decline in Black farmers between 1920 and 1997, contrasted with an increase in acres owned by white farmers over the same period. According to a 2017 USDA census, Black-operated farms accounted for just 4.7 million acres of farmland, 0.5% of the US total. Land theft forced entire communities to relocate, leaving acres of land and community resources behind. The Atlantic explains that “farmers slipped away one by one into the night, appearing later as laborers in Chicago and Detroit.”
Overt white supremacist terrorism and state-sanctioned violence created a white wealth building kleptocracy that lasted from the Reconstruction era through the 1970s and 1980s – and continues today with examples of Gullah-Geechee coastal lands under constant threat.
This historic land theft accounts for the sizable wealth gap between white and Black families today: “The dispossession of black agricultural land resulted in the loss of hundreds of billions of dollars of black wealth… Depending on multiplier effects, rates of returns, and other factors, it could reach into the trillions.” A recent study by Dania Francis, an economist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, gives a figure of $326 billion in land stolen from Black farmers and land stewards.
In 2019, the median white household held $188,200 in wealth— this is 7.8 times the typical Black household which held $24,100. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, white households (60% of US population) held 84 percent ($94 trillion) of total household wealth in the US, while Black households (13% of US population) held just four percent ($4.6 trillion) of total household wealth. Historically and in the present day, white people and ecologically unsustainable white-led industries have benefited and advanced because of the exclusion and repression of Black people.
Although federal assistance to US farmers became commonplace after New Deal legislation in the 1930s, Jim Crow segregation and economic terrorism targeted Black farmers and landowners. In her speech to the 1964 Democratic National Convention committee, acclaimed Black rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer asserted land as an integral part of the fight for the Voting Rights Act. She advocated for land reform as a necessity for Black liberation and worked to support Black agricultural communities in the South with cooperative land stewardship initiatives and organizations.
After the Civil Rights era, land dispossession occurred more often amid farming economic crises. In the mid-1980s, only 209 Black farmers out of 16,000 farmers received loans from the $1.3 billion lent by the USDA to help maintain land. Black farmers filed suit against the US Department of Agriculture and won with Pigford v. Glickman (1999) and In re Black Farmers Discrimination Litigation (2011). Additionally, Native American farmers brought suit against the USDA with Keepseagle v. Vilsack (2010) and won. Surprisingly, distribution of the funds won in these lawsuits have been delayed and the settlements do not account for the insurmountable and generational losses caused by exclusion and discrimination. Still, modern-day land grabs by TIAA-CREF and Bill Gates throughout the United States and the global south demonstrate the insidious history of white-led institutions and white people inheriting the benefits of dispossession and theft.
Black people who experienced land theft often relocated to exclusionary, ecologically unsafe, and systemically neglected areas. It was (and still is) standard for urban northern and western majority-Black communities to be targets of redlining and systemic environmental racism relegated to environmental sacrifice zones. Cities like Flint, Michigan, are known as “green crime havens,” where low-income majority-Black communities are purposefully selected by industries and local governments for pollution and environmental neglect.
Margaret Washington’s “A Terrible Thing to Waste” posits that “after the victories of the civil rights movement, including the end of de jure racial segregation, African American residents of neglected communities took aim at a different kind of racial sequestering. They began to demand equal access to clean land, food, air, and water through lawsuits, political demands, and civil disobedience.” For Black people that persevered and continued to steward communal and family land, catastrophic climate crisis events and industrial environmental harm are ongoing realities (See: Gullah-Geechee coastal lands).
Land theft is Eco-Terrorism
There is a profound environmental impact in land dispossession. In addition to the consolidation of agricultural land into large-scale agribusinesses for genetically modified foods, monocrops, and expansive animal agriculture, dispossession includes “undeveloped” land and natural spaces under communal stewardship and extended familial title. Natural spaces once protected by the government are always threatened by eminent domain laws—Atlanta’s recent plan for deforestation for a 30 million dollar police training facility attest to this. Land labeled “undeveloped,” including swamps, riverways, mountain ridges, coastal lands, wetlands, and forests, are targeted for farm land, real estate and tourist development, industrial and government sanctioned pollution, and industrial extraction of petroleum, natural gas, coal, and minerals.
In addition to the US military occupation and seizure of Indigenous First Nations territories, systemic anti-Blackness justified the stealing of land from Black stewards who endured brutality and were exiled for generations. Land theft is steeped in intersectional Black identities as well. Black Indigenous people, who were able to attain and steward land through nation status and federal legislation such as the Dawes Act, also experienced theft, violence, and displacement due to anti-Blackness (see: Tulsa Massacre).
Communities at the intersection of Black, brown, and Indigenous leading reparations and landback movements to protect water, land, natural ecologies, and community safety are working to preserve land rights and stewardship claims through decolonial repatriation, institution building, and sovereignty efforts.
About 50 million Black people living in the US today are direct descendants of the four million enslaved Black people counted in the 1860 US Census. Many Black people are also descendants of free Black communities of the 18th and 19th centuries, which includes free Black migrants from outside of the US and Black Indigenous peoples. Some Black people are descendants of the 8,000 Black Indigenous people enslaved in Indian Territory and may not have been counted in the 1860 census. And, because of US imperialism in the Caribbean and Central America, some Black Americans are also descendants of Black immigrants that arrived in Ellis Island, Tampa, or New Orleans before or at the turn of 20th century in the midst of US segregation and economic terrorism against Black people.
Reparations address the harms, stolen land and resources, and unpaid and stolen labor inflicted on these diverse groups of Black Americans and people of African descent by and with the enforcement of the state.
Reparations are more than financial restitution in the form of checks from the US government, institutions, and industries. Reparations are world-making, society-transforming interventions. Reparations include land stewardship, forms of sovereignty, institution building, ecological repair, and, most importantly, safety for Black people.
“Reparations are more than financial restitution in the form of checks from the US government, institutions, and industries. Reparations are world-making, society-transforming interventions.”
Lisa Betty is a PhD Candidate in History at Fordham University. She teaches on themes of land, labor, migration, and diaspora in the Americas, the Caribbean and Africa. Lisa has worked in the field of nonprofit advocacy serving in organizations that advocate for children, families, immigrants, and incarcerated people. As a child of a Jamaican immigrant, the development of safe-sustainable-healing spaces for Black, brown, Indigenous peoples – and interconnected ecologies and species – is another aspect of Lisa’s life.
Source: Ethical Style Journal