It's Time To Make Reparations To The Victims Of Slavery And Their Descendants

Jun 3, 2021

Reparations are systems of redress for state-sponsored injustices. They’re meant to repair past harms and have been implemented for various injured individuals and groups. But none have ever been made to the victims of slavery and their descendants. 

A little-known fact is that just prior to Reconstruction, the U.S. made reparations to former slave holders in Washington, D.C. — the equivalent of $8,000 in today’s dollars for every slave that was freed.

Our country also promised formerly enslaved African Americans 40 acres and a mule. The "40" in H.R. 40 is meant to remind us we've never made good on that commitment.

It's past time make amends. But we can't know precisely how much is owed until we have an accurate accounting of the crimes committed.  

When human remains from a plantation had recently been discovered on the campus of the University of the West Indies, its chancellor, Sir Hillary Beckles, chair of the Caribbean Reparations Commission, said in a talk at Harvard Law School: "There's no point in burying the legacy and the memory as well as the bones. Let us bring everything to the surface, and find a way forward through all of this." He urged the great nation of the U.S. to form a reparations commission of its own.

We must insist on that truthful accounting of our dark history of chattel slavery, and its contemporary reverberations. We must courageously turn toward the truth, and begin to heal our collective wound, so we don’t pass it down to our children, and our children’s children.

Congresspeople should put their ears to the ground now, and listen to those bones that are are trying to speak. Congress must allow the cries of our ancestors to penetrate their hearts, and move them to finally take reparative action.

Michele Miller is co-founder of Reparations for Amherst. A version of this commentary first appeared in The Daily Hampshire Gazette.