Guest Commentary: Reparations: It’s not a yes or no issue

Associated PressOregon state Sen. Lew Frederick reads a measure on Thursday, April 15, in Salem, Oregon, urging Congress to pass, and the president to sign, a bill in Congress to create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals. The Oregon Senate then passed the measure.(

Beginning in 1952, the Luxembourg Agreement set the stage for Jewish survivors and their descendants to begin receiving reparations from the Republic of Germany for the sins of the Holocaust.

In 2016, the United States approved the payment of $11 million in reparations from France to Jewish survivors and their descendants living in America.

In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act was passed by the United States government that authorized reparations to the Japanese-Americans for internment during World War II. It was opposed by the majority of Republicans, supported by the majority of Democrats and signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

But, when discussions turn to the issue of reparations for the estimated 4 million former slaves who gained freedom as a consequence of the Civil War, there is a disconnect regarding whether the descendants of those former slaves (aka Freedmen Descendants), should be compensated for the forced labor of their ancestors in building the infrastructure of the United States; it was America’s original sin, slavery.

I must admit, however, that as the grandson of a former enslaved American, I am sometimes just as confused as others about the aims purposed by some of today’s advocates for reparations.

Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have an online five-point position statement regarding reparations. The fifth item calls for “legislation at the federal and state level” to acknowledge and address the harm of slavery, including the passage of H.R. 40. Recently, the House Judiciary Committee approved H.R. 40 by a vote of 25-17. The approval set the stage for an eventual commission to study reparations in a context that extends beyond the actual forced labor of enslaved Americans. This is also echoed by the first four items of the Black Lives Matter position statement.

Here lies a part of the problem. When reparations were provided to Jews of the Holocaust and their descendants there were actual names of people associated with the decreed. Reparations to Japanese-Americans were directed to actually named people. But, in our current state of affairs, there is the advocacy for reparations to be provided to “Black people,” for numerous reasons, without the requirement of having direct descent from enslaved Americans.

That is not going to fly.

In my thinking, the rightful advocates for reparations today are the numerous individuals and organizations who have been documenting for decades the enslaved Americans and their Freedmen Descendants. They have been setting the context for actually named people being acknowledged for the sin of American slavery. Identifying the names of such people can be done by reaching back to the 1870 Census, records of the United States Colored Troops of the Civil War, employment contracts of freed persons between 1866 and 1872, voter registration rolls from 1867 and 1868, and other documents.

The point is that, while not all formerly enslaved Americans and their descendants will be identified, there will at least be a process for setting the stage for reparations. This process is also an educational one that allows not only Black citizens but also others to be engaged in documenting “a forgotten people.”

In fact, some who are white, Native American and/or Asian will probably learn that they are also descendants of enslaved Americans.

Harry Bradshaw Matthews is retired associate dean and director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs at Hartwick College, founding president of USCT Institute for Local History and Family Research  and a member of the Board of Directors of SUNY Oneonta Foundation.

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