The debate over reparations in the United States began even before slavery ended in 1865.
It continues today. The overwhelming majority of academics studying the issue have supported the calls for compensating black Americans for the centuries of chattel slavery and the 100 years of lynching, mob violence and open exclusion from public and private benefits like housing, health care, voting, political office and education that occurred during the Jim Crow era.
Despite this academic support, the nation is arguably no closer to consensus on this issue than it was 150 years ago. Not surprisingly, my research has shown that the idea remains widely unpopular with white Americans and overwhelmingly supported by African-Americans.
The example of a Founding Father
The debate over reparations began not long after the country was founded.
In 1790, Benjamin Franklin committed to instruct, employ and educate the children of those he had set free from bondage. Franklin saw this as a way to “promote the public good, and the happiness of these our hitherto too much neglected fellow-creatures.”
After slavery ended, Senator Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania proposed the reparations bill in 1867. It provided 40 acres of land to each adult male and to each female who was the head of a family. In addition, it called for funding to construct a homestead on the land. Stevens saw reparations as necessary to avoid racial hatred, inequality and strife.
Callie House, who was born enslaved, took up the charge in the 1890s under the auspices of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association. She was arrested and ultimately imprisoned for her efforts in 1917. She was accused of raising money to support a cause that the government argued was so implausible as to constitute fraud. The organization had built a membership in the tens of thousands from 1897 to 1898, and continued to grow thereafter.
Scholars pick up the cause