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The politics of reparations in California, etc.


Practical Politics

By David L. Horne, Ph.D | oped contributor


The Reparations issue for all its history in the U.S.A. has been very, very complicated. Now that there is some movement, particularly, but not exclusively, in California, that complication has increased, rather than decreased.

Let’s begin with a common sense definition: Reparations is the process of repairing, healing and restoring a people injured because of their group identity and in violation of their fundamental human rights by governments, corporations, institutions and/or families. Those groups that have been injured have the right to obtain from the government, corporations, institutions or families responsible for the injuries suffered or damage done, that which they need to repair and heal themselves. In addition to being a demand for justice, it is a principle of international human rights law.

Reparation relief should be proportional to the gravity of the violations and the harm suffered. In accordance with its domestic laws and international legal obligations, a State shall provide reparations to victims for acts or omissions which can be attributed to the State and which constitute gross violations of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law. In cases where a person, a legal person, or other entity is found liable for reparation to a victim, such party should provide reparation directly to the victim or compensate the State if the State has already provided reparations to the victim.

Next, let’s separate at least some facts from fiction.

MYTH: The ‘40 Acres and A Mule’ Concept---That between 1861 (the Emancipation

Proclamation, the Confiscation Acts, Sherman’s Field Order #15, the Southern Homestead Act, the Freedmen’s Bureau Acts)) and 1877 (the effective ending of Reconstruction), the American government made a promise to African Americans that Blacks would be given emancipation from slavery along with forty acres of land for each family, and a mule and other farm implements to help plow it. The 40 Acres myth (getting what they promised us) is the actual beginning of the Reparations Movement in the U.S., even though Callie House/Isaiah Dickerson’s 1890 Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association was the first organizational effort for Slave-based Reparations.

Correction to the Myth: That promise was not made and, thus, it was not a promise broken. The ‘forty acres and a mule’ concept, which was a long-standing rumor among the slave community in the South, was most likely generated by Southern newspapers (1860-1864) and the Confederate Congress (1861-1865) publicly discussing the probability that the Union under Lincoln was committed to taking land from slaveholders and redistributing it to slaves.  Publicly discussing that idea was to fire up Southern troops.

Abolitionists strongly advocated that, in fact, the Union government should do this, and two months after the Civil War began, Congress passed the First Confiscation Act which in fact did authorize Union forces to seize abandoned land in the South and also land which had not complied with the federal tax law. The idea that this land would be given to slaves freed by the Union soldiers, however,  was not part of the law.

At the famous meeting in January, 1865, between twenty selected Black leaders and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General William T. Sherman in Savannah, Georgia, the land issue was certainly discussed in terms of what Blacks wanted. The “40 acres” concept (but not the mule) was in fact included in Sherman’s Field Order 15, which was issued a few days later, on January 16, 1865. It called for Blacks who had followed Sherman’s army from Atlanta to Savannah to be allowed to settle on abandoned and confiscated coastal land from Charleston, South Carolina south to the St. John’s River in Florida, some 30 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean.

Through Sherman’s official representative, Gen. Rufus Saxton, approximately 40,000 African Americans were allowed to settle on over 485,000 acres in that region during the first few months of 1865. None of those settlers received title to the property, however. They were given possession only, and after President Andrew Johnson (Lincoln’s successor after the assassination) issued his Proclamation Pardon in May, 1865, a few months later, which gave virtually all former Confederates a blanket pardon for fighting against the U.S. government and restored their land claims to them, Blacks were summarily removed from the land Sherman allowed them to have temporarily.

The concept of awarding Black freedmen “40 acres” of leased or rented land, food and supplies (still no mule) was also included in the original language proposed for establishing the Freedmen’s Bureau, the federal government’s first welfare agency. That language (mainly written by Thaddeus Stevens) included a request to validate the redistribution of land which resulted from Sherman’s Field Order 15. However, that language was deleted by the time the final bill was approved by Congress on March 3, 1865, and immediately signed by President Lincoln. Gone was the reference to Sherman and the South Carolina and Georgia lands.

Also gone was any reference to giving Blacks free title to government land. Instead, the Bureau was authorized to set aside some 800,000 acres of abandoned and confiscated land from all over the South to be assigned in tracts up to forty acres per head of a family. That land was to be provided to freed Blacks and poor whites for a low-price lease and rent of up to three years, after which any of the settlers could purchase their plots at current appraised value. However, the Freedmen’s Bureau was never allowed, in actuality, to redistribute any of that land to Blacks, even under those modest terms of usage.

Most of the land controlled by the Bureau was restored to Southern planters or sold to white speculators. The rest stayed in government hands. Finally, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens had strongly advocated the granting of forty acre plots of land to freed Blacks, along with $50 apiece per head of family, as an amendment to the 1867 Reconstruction Act passed by the Radical Republicans in Congress. However, his amendment was voted down.

Essentially, there was never any legal or official promise made by the U.S. government to Blacks to provide them with free land and the wherewithal to farm that land.

Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.

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