When Richard E. Barber Sr. filed a class-action lawsuit this spring against companies that benefited from slavery, he was trying to collect a debt dating back more than a century.
“This represents a debt unpaid to our ancestors,” he said from his home in Somerset, N.J. “Slaves worked for 240 years without a pay day.”
There is no statute of limitations on equity,” said Barber, a former deputy executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “If my great-grandfather helped create wealth, don’t you think that I, in 2002, am entitled to part of it?”
Barber’s argument is not new. Since emancipation, former slaves and their descendants have pressed the United States to honor a promise of 40 acres and a mule. Today, the issue still resonates in our community. In a series of Essence.com polls, nearly 80 percent of visitors said African-Americans are entitled to reparations for slavery. Will we ever be repaid? “Never,” said nearly 73 percent of 1,680 respondents.
Here’s a brief timeline of the reparations struggle:
* September 1863: President Abraham Lincoln signs the Emancipation Proclamation, which frees slaves living in Confederate states. Freedom for all slaves doesn’t come until the end of the Civil War ends when Congress ends slavery.
* January 1865: Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issues a field order that distributes land from plantations abandoned by fleeing slaveowners on the coast of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to former slaves who had deserted their former masters and followed in his march across Georgia. The land was divided into 40-acre tracts. They also received mules discarded by the military. Roughly 400,000 acres were distributed to 40,000 families.
# March to June 1865: The newly formed Freedmen’s Bureau is authorized to distribute 40-acre tracts from abandoned plantations to “every male citizen, whether refugee or freedman.” But by April, after the assassination of President Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee takes office and reverses the efforts of the Freedmen’s Bureau and returns confiscated land to former slaveowners and encourages freedmen and women to work for the plantation owners.
# 1890 to 1920s: William Vaughan, a white Democrat from Alabama, promotes the idea of a pension for ex-slaves. He pushes to introduce a bill in Congress in 1890 and later organizes groups around the country to push for the bill’s passage. His efforts spawned several “pension organizations,” and a climate of fraud in which many Blacks were duped into donating money to the groups. Eventually the government prosecuted several of the fraudulent groups and the pension movement died.
# 1963: A century after the Emancipation Proclamation, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King calls on the government to create a massive program “of special compensatory measures,” that would guarantee equality for Black Americans. “The moral justification for special measures for the Negro is rooted in the robberies … of slavery,” he wrote in his book, Why We Can’t Wait.
# 1989: Congressman John Conyers, a Democrat from Detroit first introduces legislation calling for the examination of reparations. The bill has died in committee ever since.
# 2000: Randall Robinson, then-president of TransAfrica, publishes The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks. The book puts reparations back in the public debate.
Congressman Tony Hall, a Democrat from Ohio, proposes a resolution calling for a federal apology for the government’s role in slavery. No action is taken on the resolution.
# 2002: The IRS begins warning taxpayers against filing false tax claims based on reparations. The agency is reacting to the rash of claims for the “Slave Reparations Act” or the “black inheritance tax refund” that some African-Americans had been submitting since the mid-’90s. In some cases, unscrupulous tax preparers were charging a fee for a lump-sum payment. In others, scam artists targeted senior citizens with promises of reparations in the form of additional Social Security payments.
# March 26, 2002: Activist Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, a legal researcher, files a class-action suit in New York targeting 100 corporations that benefited from slavery. The lawsuit claims that Fleet Boston Financial Corp., Aetna Inc., and CSX Corp., a transportation company, owe unspecified damages to millions of descendants of slaves.
# June 2002: New York Assemblyman Charles Barron submits a resolution calling on the City Council to support Farmer-Paellman’s lawsuit. New York joins the cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Atlanta and Dallas in taking up the issue of reparations.
# August 17, 2002: Washington. D.C. the site of a planned march in support of reparations.