When Reparations Grow From the Grassroots
Until federal reparations happen, local organizations across the country are stepping up.
In 2019, Joseph Thompson, the director of multicultural ministries and assistant professor of race and ethnicity studies at the Virginia Theological Seminary, signed on to a team of faculty and staff that would coordinate the institution’s reparations program. He understood two things: The payments would never account for the harm and legacy of enslavement, and the work wasn’t primarily about the money.
“How can you determine how much money would really make amends?” Thompson asks. “It’s not just about the money. It’s about, for one thing, telling the truth about the seminary’s history … [and] it’s about developing a true and authentic and equitable enough relationship with the families and the descendants.”
The seminary’s team of researchers has begun to make disbursements to 12 families, between 30 and 35 people, whom Thompson refers to as shareholders. The goal is to work with the generation most closely linked with individuals the seminary enslaved as blacksmiths, carpenters, or bricklayers, as well as those who held similar positions during the Jim Crow era. As part of the program, researchers will document oral histories of the descendants of those who were enslaved and collaborate with the shareholders to decide how the reparations should be disbursed.
“Hopefully [through this work], people will realize that the seminary belongs as much to the descendants of the [enslaved] people as it belongs to the white people that everybody always thought the seminary belonged to, because they are an integral part of the story,” Thompson says.
The seminary’s Office of Multicultural Ministries is just one team of many around the country, including those at educational institutions in Virginia, cities like Evanston, Illinois, and in the state of California, working to make amends for the harms of slavery and its many legacies. Demands for these kinds of reparative payments have been around since the practice of enslavement was legal in the United States, but today they’re gaining new traction on a national scale, offering a vision for a just and equitable future that feels more achievable than at any time in history.
A History of Calls for Justice
According to Ashley D. Farmer, an assistant professor in the History and the African and African Diaspora Studies departments at the University of Texas at Austin, the first reparations claim was made in 1783 by a woman named Belinda, whose enslaver, loyal to the empire, left the United States in 1775. Belinda petitioned the Massachusetts legislature for payment for her labor as an enslaved woman. The government affirmed the petition by granting payment of 15 pounds and 12 shillings per year, though the annual payment was inconsistent, and Belinda would have to petition the legislature twice more to receive her due.
Farmer says that large-scale reparations organizing wasn’t taken up until almost 100 years later, in 1869, by a formerly enslaved Black woman named Callie House. House was in charge of one of the country’s first Black-led reparations networks, known as the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty, and Pension Association of the United States of America, which would eventually sue the U.S. Treasury in 1915 for $68 million in reparations. “The lawsuit claimed that this sum, collected between 1862 and 1868 as a tax on cotton, was due to the appellants because the cotton had been produced by them and their ancestors as a result of their ‘involuntary servitude,’” wrote archivist Miranda Booker Perry. A court of appeals in Washington, D.C., denied the claim on the grounds of governmental immunity—the idea that the government isn’t culpable for wrongdoing, even if the wrongdoing is illegal.
In the aftermath of World War II, the reparations movement gained renewed momentum, Farmer says, aided by the Black Nationalist and Civil Rights movements. This time the drive was led by Queen Mother Audley Moore, known as the mother of the modern-day reparations movement. In fact, many of the proposals that movement leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X would later espouse came directly from Moore, who was a mentor of Malcolm X’s, Farmer says.
In the 1940s and ’50s, this idea of repayment was brewing, both domestically and internationally, and Moore is the person who began to really advocate for Black Americans, Farmer says. Moore was adamant that reparations necessitated both a symbolic apology to recognize the wrongdoing as well as a material shift of resources and goods in order to address the systemic and sociocultural racism in America and “the mass amounts of inequality that have come from slavery through the present,” Farmer continues.
As House and Moore sought justice from the U.S. federal government, both leaders were subjected to years-long efforts to criminalize their work. And while there’s now widespread acknowledgement that the legacy of slavery impacts the condition of life in today’s America, a 2019 Gallup poll put overall support for reparations at just 29% of the population.
Each year from 1989 to 2018, Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers introduced a bill to study the need for repayment. After Conyers passed away, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat from Texas, reintroduced the legislation in 2019. That year, it received a historic hearing, and in April 2021, the Judiciary Committee voted in favor of bringing the bill to the floor of the House of Representatives.
Still, substantive federal action could be a long way off as the legislation hasn’t been called for a vote in the House, nor has companion legislation been introduced in the Senate. Even then, the legislation calls for the study of the need for reparative payments, rather than actual reparations.
A Grassroots Culture Shift for Reparations
Until federal reparations are actualized, grassroots organizations across the country are heeding the call to right these wrongs.
“I felt, if I’m going to wait for the government to get on board with reparations, then how long am I going to be waiting?” says Sue Downing, who pays monthly reparations to individuals in her community in western Massachusetts as well as to her local chapter of the national organization Showing Up for Racial Justice.
When the chapter first started in 2014, organizer Kelly Silliman says, the group was focused on generalized work, such as showing up in solidarity to a protest or knocking on doors to educate white folks about white privilege. The chapter began educating its members on the importance of reparations and encouraged individuals to commit to monthly payments to three local BIPOC-led groups. The chapter’s accountability partners—a SURJ term for people of color, in this case Black, who volunteer to quite literally hold members accountable to their mission and goals—recommended that the organizers narrow their focus. With that in mind, the chapter committed to paying reparations to two Black queer and transgender organizers who had previously experienced racialized housing insecurity.
In January 2019, the group launched a reparations effort specifically aimed at overcoming racialized housing insecurity, starting with activities to educate its members. The chapter hosted racial affinity group “fishbowls” (in which one group converses while another observes the conversation without participating), plays about the impact of white supremacy on parenting, and intimate presentations at the homes of SURJ members to educate white community members on the importance of paying reparations. By June of 2020, the chapter and broader community in western Massachusetts had collected and paid more than $100,000 in reparations to the two Black freedom fighters, which they used to purchase their own house in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Stickii Quest, one of the recipients of the reparations and one of the SURJ chapter’s accountability partners, says that they were housing-unstable their whole life and assumed that they and their partner, ShaeShae Quest, would always be renters. Stickii Quest says their mother “attempted to own a home, [but] that only lasted about four years,” and ShaeShae’s mother owned a home that was taken through eminent domain. In a gentrifying neighborhood, where an increasing number of Black and Brown people struggle to keep their homes, the Quests weren’t sure their goal would be realized until they put in the offer.
“To have a place that I know that the only time that I have to move is when I choose to, the only time that I have to worry about where I’m sleeping is when I choose to not be here anymore, [and] without the looming fear of a landlord or a predatory lending company [or] without having to worry about a mortgage payment, I can’t even express the level of stress that it took off my shoulders,” Stickii Quest says.
Land Access Is at the Root of the Issue
Housing felt like an important place for the SURJ chapter to start because so much racial inequity comes back to the issue of land access. The genesis story of the United States is one of land theft: land theft from Native peoples by Europeans starting in the 16th century and continuing into the 19th century in the name of Manifest Destiny; land theft in overturning Gen. Sherman’s Field Order 15, which broke the promise of land redistribution for formerly enslaved people after the Civil War; and land theft through the forcible relocation of Japanese Americans during WWII to prevent the perceived threat of espionage.
This unequal access to owning a home and the land it’s built on is the basis of what has built much of the generational wealth in the U.S.—and created the country’s racial wealth gap. “For me, this idea of landowning as a contributor to wealth throughout generations was very important,” Downing says. “To look at my own family history and to say, ‘Yeah I can see how I have benefited from the fact that my family on both sides was able to purchase land in a way that was denied to formerly enslaved people.’”
Through her own organizing, Downing found discussion of the racial wealth gap to be one of the more compelling reasons a white person might decide to pay reparations. Even Downing, whose great-great-grandfather was a chaplain in the Civil War and who enslaved people, says that she doesn’t “think [family history is] a convincing argument for a lot of people. I mean, I don’t shy away from saying it, and it is an additional motivator for me, but I don’t feel guilt about it … I feel that it was reprehensible and wrong … but guilt is not a particularly useful emotion.”
This isn’t an uncommon sentiment: The generational distance from the country’s ordaining of slavery has proved an effective argument at the federal level for denying reparations. Farmer says that seeking reparations and demanding accountability for Japanese Americans interned during WWII was somewhat more straightforward because it was a contained instance of injustice. When President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act four decades after the end of Japanese internment, many of the internees were still alive. “You could trace exactly who went there. You can trace exactly their seizure of property very clearly,” Farmer explains.
“Black people, I mean, where do you begin? We are so entangled in the founding of the nation, so entangled in white wealth, and now we are so far away from actual slavery. How would you even begin to try to create some sort of system for doing so?” Reparations are owed for more than 250 years of legalized slavery; reparative action concerns every sociocultural, political, and economic dimension of American life that slavery facilitated and that followed the 13th Amendment, which made the system of enslavement illegal, except as a punishment for a crime.
Creating that system for change and satisfying the hunger for justice, the Western Mass SURJ chapter believes, must start from the ground up. “Part of the conversation we’ve had is building a will toward reparations,” says Misha Viets van Dyk, the network organizer at SURJ National. “I want to see reparations happen on a much larger scale in terms of policies changed and actual money paid out, but I think that reparations is not just about a one-time payment.”
They add that an apology for past wrongs is toothless if institutions perpetuate the legacies of those harms. For instance, Viets van Dyk says, “If you keep incarcerating so many people, specifically Black people, or continue these horrible predatory housing practices, then making a one-time payment” doesn’t repair anything.
Viets van Dyk says that the organization is exploring ways to expand reparations and wealth redistribution efforts at the ground level, either through SURJ hubs or partnerships with national organizations like Fund for Reparations NOW!, which describes itself as “the white ally initiative of the National African American Reparations Commission.” While a handful of SURJ chapters are dedicating themselves to targeted reparations campaigns in the ways that the Western Mass chapter did, most others are redirecting funds and donations toward Black and people of color-led organizations.
Grassroots reparations strategies like those of the Virginia Theological Seminary, SURJ chapters, universities, and cities are gaining greater attention, and serving the dual purpose of compensating for historic and systemic wrongs while also building a “culture within our country that values the idea of reparations and understands why it’s important,” Downing says.
Whether or not that cultural shift reaches the federal government remains to be seen. Farmer says the government making a concerted effort to make amends would be a substantial gesture, even if the amount of money would be incalculable and unimaginable. Perhaps the bigger challenge, she says, is the fact that the country would have to contend with the idea of what America really is. “This whole idea of the ‘land of the free,’ this idea of democracy and triumphalism, is false,” Farmer says. “So both on a symbolic level and a material level, it’s very hard to reckon with, because [making reparations] means undermining white supremacy.” And that is the true stuff this country is built on.