Blog #9: Douglass, Property, and Reparations

How can we possibly pay back descendants of Africa treated as property for centuries? This overwhelming question derails discussion of potential reparations, yet we somehow managed to maintain a system of race-based oppression for 400 years. Given the lengths our country went to in order to create and justify such oppression, shouldn’t we at least talk about it?  Call your representative and ask them to support Representative Shelia Jackson Lee’s bill H.R. 40 to create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. We need a national conversation on reparations to help heal the wounds of slavery.
Frederick Douglass did not use the term “reparations,” but he understood the growing debt this country was incurring through slavery.  While people of African descent brought to Virginia in 1619 were originally considered “indentured servants,” slave codes transformed them legally into “property.”  Beginning in the 1660’s, Maryland and Virginia defined them as “slaves for life,” chattel without rights.  Treating enslaved people as chattel property inflated estimates of national wealth.  Historian David Blight noted that, “In 1860, slaves as an asset were worth more than all of America’s manufacturing, all of the railroads, all of the productive capacity of the United States put together.” Some estimate that cotton picked by enslaved laborers produced more tax revenue than all other American exports combined! 

Frederick Douglass preached about the logical inconsistencies of slavery, like the fact that owners denied enslaved people legal standing unless they were accused and tried for stealing other property. Enslaved people who ran away were tried for stealing themselves!Besides, Douglass didn’t think it was “stealing” if you simply moved property within the sphere of the master’s domain, from kitchen cupboard to the stomach of and enslaved laborer.  In addition, it was about survival: “As society has marked me out as privileged plunder, on the principle of self-preservation, I am justified in plundering in turn.” (58)
Even when emancipated people were freed, their limited resources and land were plundered. They were not given the promised “40 Acres and a mule.” Their land titles were stripped away, transferring up to 24,000 acres according to a 2001 AP study.  Given such twisted logic and blatant robbery, we demand a serious study of potential forms of reparations.  Support HR 40! 

  • Lesson #26: We need to talk about reparations.

  • Lesson #27: Enslaved people, treated as property, became our greatest national asset.

  • Lesson #28: The only time when enslaved people were counted legally as persons was when it was to their disadvantage.

  • Lesson #29: Self-preservation in an unjust system justifies “plunder.”

  • Lesson #30: We need legislation to fund this national conversation.

Hugh Taft-Morales