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Reparations for Black Americans seeing unprecedented national support, advocates say

Callie House walked out of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City on August 1, 1918, and headed back to her five children and job as a “washerwoman” in Tennessee. Her crime – mail fraud. 

The federal government claimed that the organization she’d helped lead since 1894 – the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association – was essentially a fraudulent scam. 

Formerly enslaved herself, House had been successful in rallying hundreds of thousands of people nationwide to call for federal pensions for formerly enslaved people as compensation and reparation for their unpaid labor and suffering. They were also asking the federal government to provide food and medical expenses.

After an attempt to sue the federal government in 1915, House and her colleagues were indicted because the feds claimed they were using their mailers to obtain money from formerly enslaved people and falsely proclaiming that pensions and reparations were a real possibility. In truth, the literature was promoting the passage of legislation for reparations.

An all-white, male jury sentenced her to a year and a day.

Buckling from the federal charges against it, the association dissolved. But the federal pushback against reparations continued on for the next 100 years.

Yet this year, reparations advocates say they’re receiving “unheard of” support nationwide that could lead to long-awaited action. 

Civil rights and religious groups are demanding that President Joe Biden sign an executive order to study reparations for Black Americans by Juneteenth – the national holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S.

And supporters are optimistic it could actually happen. 

The order would mirror the 30-year-old perennial bill known as H.R. 40 – for the “40 acres and a mule” promise made to formerly enslaved Black people by a Union general in 1865. It would establish a 13-person reparation commission in Congress, similar to the task force California established in September 2020. 

The executive order is necessary because the federal legislation doesn’t have a viable path forward, said Kamm Howard, with the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. 

Howard, who has supported the measure since the late Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) first introduced the bill in 1989, said the legislation has more support than ever – with 196 co-sponsors for the House bill and 22 for the Senate bill

“This is the first time since Reconstruction has there been this type of federal support for reparations — that’s since 1887,” Howard said. “The type of support we have now, we have never seen this in the history of the modern reparations movement.” 

The House bill’s current sponsor, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, gave an impassioned speech on July 26, 2021 – a few months after the bill passed out of committee for the first time. She noted that approximately 4 million Africans and their descendants were enslaved in the United States and colonies that became the United States from 1619 to 1865. 

Missouri had 114,931 enslaved people in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War. There were 3,572 free Black residents. 

“While it is nearly impossible to determine how the lives touched by slavery could have flourished in the absence of bondage, we have certain datum that permits us to examine how a subset of Americans – African Americans – have been affected by the callousness of involuntary servitude,” she said.

“We know that in almost every segment of society — education, health care, jobs, and wealth – the inequities that persist in America are more acutely and disproportionately felt in Black America.” 

The first step is to study the “enduring impact of slavery,” she said, so the country can begin “the necessary process of atonement.”

According to the United Nations, five conditions must be met for full reparations to exist: restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction and guarantees of non-repetition. 

California’s nine-member task force has used the United Nations’ framework for their study and released the first 500-page report on June 1.

The California report describes how federal, state, and local government created segregation in California through redlining, zoning ordinances, decisions on where to build schools and highways and discriminatory federal mortgage policies. 

“From colonial times forward, governments at all levels adopted and enshrined white supremacy beliefs and passed laws in order to maintain slavery…” it states. “This system of white supremacy is a persistent badge of slavery that continues to be embedded today in numerous American and Californian legal, economic, and social and political systems.”  

The task force’s six pages of preliminary recommendations to state legislators included providing housing grants, free tuition and to raise the minimum wage.

 St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones speaks at the Juneteenth Caribbean Heritage Walkathon on June 19, 2021, in Forest Park.

In St. Louis, a coalition of more than 25 local community organizations recently asked Mayor Tishaura Jones to establish a reparations commission to explore the history of race-based harms in the city and eventually propose a reparations plan.

Juneteenth is the right time for elected leaders to make their move and take action, said Mike Milton, one of the co-signers and executive director of Freedom Community Center in St. Louis.

“Juneteenth is a celebration of our freedom,” Milton said. “And what we know is that we’re still fighting for our freedom to this day. This is a united voice saying that our freedom is not yet realized. And we will get more free, if you repair what you’ve done.”

This article by Rebecca Rivas is published from The Missouri Independent through a Creative Commons license.

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