September 5, 2000
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Nearly 140 years after slavery ended, Chicago City Council members decided it was time for a national discussion on reparations, a discussion some felt should begin with an apology.
SPOKESMAN: Why can't we get somebody to officially say "we apologize?"
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: By a vote of 49-1, Chicago joined four other cities in passing a resolution urging Congress to discuss compensation for the descendants of slaves. Alderwoman Dorothy Tillman introduced the resolution.
DOROTHY TILLMAN, Chicago Alderman: What has happened to us as a people in this country had never... we've never had a public airing or a public hearing on it. If you talked about it, something happened to you. And I think America, in order for it to heal and move forward, that we have to discuss it and it has to be dealt with because that's the ugly secret of America, the shame of America, what America did to slavery-- to slaves, and what it did to us.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Chicago resolution urges Congress to pass a bill U.S. Representative John Conyers first introduced in 1989. The bill, which has never had a hearing, asks Congress to set up a presidential commission to study the issue of reparations. Conyers asked for the commission just after Congress approved a $20,000 reparations payment for Japanese Americans imprisoned in World War II. But Conyers' bill does not attach a dollar amount to reparations for the descendants of slaves.
REP. JOHN CONYERS, (D) Michigan: What I'm talking about is restitution or reparations or how does a nation atone for this huge moral lapse that went over a period of several hundred years and affected some four million people. So it's a big problem, and that's why I want to approach it without a bill on reparations. I want to approach it with the first study by the government about the subject.
|The horrors of slavery|
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In Chicago, the discussion brought out the horrors of slavery, the lynching and burning of black men -- a vivid description of the torture endured by some slaves was given by Dr. Wade Nobles of the National Association of Black Psychologists.
DR. WADE NOBLES: Before saturating him with oil and applying the torch, they cut off his ears, cut off his fingers, cut off his genitals, and skinned his face while he was still alive.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Dr. Nobles suggested the psychological impact of such horror still affects African Americans today, a condition he described as post-traumatic slavery syndrome. Alderwoman Carrie Austin described her own pain.
CARRIE AUSTIN: To know that my dad was listed not on a birth certificate, but with the livestock, that hurts me today.
CARRIE AUSTIN: I thought about my dad, that the man that was hanging on the picture that had been hung could have been him. So you, slave owner, property owner, you have to have worked him as a part of your property. So did you pay him? No, you gave him room and board or a place to lay. So therefore, you owe my dad. My dad is deceased now, so therefore you owe his offspring, which is my brother and I. So far as reparation is concerned, do I feel that I am one that is deserving of it? Yes, I do, in that respect.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Brian Doherty was the lone Chicago alderman who voted against the reparations resolution. He doesn't doubt that slavery imposed hardship on African Americans. He says the mostly white ethnic residents in his ward don't buy the idea of direct reparations.
BRIAN DOHERTY: I think that it should be part of our history and it should be known, but when you come down and start talking about money, and you try to explain to someone who is first generation here, or somebody who got passed up for a job for affirmative action, and then tell them that there's going to be direct monetary payments for descendants from 150, 200 years ago, they are like, "Hey, I've got to make my mortgage payment, my car payment, my tuition payment; what benefit did I have from this? What direct benefit did I have from this?" And they are going to be angry about it. And I can understand that anger.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Even some African Americans say they don't like the idea of economic reparations. Economist Walter Williams says slavery did not impose economic hardship on African Americans; rather, they benefited from it.
WALTER WILLIAMS, Economist, George Mason University: Assuming that I would have been born anyway, or most black Americans would have been born anyway, my wealth and their wealth is higher as a result of being born in the United States than in Africa. Now you have to ask the question, how in the world did so many blacks come to be born in the United States? It was a direct result of slavery. So to that extend, today's blacks have benefited from the horrors and injustices suffered by our ancestors.
|Five miles in front|
|ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Historian Lerone Bennett looks at the
question of reparations in his latest book, "Forced Into Glory."
He couldn't disagree more with Williams' analysis.
LERONE BENNETT: The question is not what are we today, the question is what would we have been today if we'd had all the billions of dollars that belonged to us. The question is how much greater we would have been and how much greater white people would have been if we had been given the money we deserved to have, and if we had the economic development that we should have now.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Williams asks where the money to pay reparations will come from.
WALTER WILLIAMS: There is no tooth fairy or Santa Claus giving the government money for reparations. Now... So that means that the only way that the government can give one American citizen one dollar is to first, through intimidation, threats, and coercion, take it from some other American.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Alderwoman Tillman says there are many unanswered questions the nation must thrash out about reparations. Who would be eligible? How much money would be involved? She's not sure what the answers will be, but she knows what she doesn't want.
DOROTHY TILLMAN: You know, we're not trying to send every black American a check in the mail, per se.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What is your idea of what a form... what a form reparations might take?
DOROTHY TILLMAN: Well, I think it's going to be about rebuilding our community and making sure that the next level of our children don't suffer and be as far behind; to really help our people catch up in this race that white America have had five miles in front of us.
|An historic adventure|
|ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The argument over reparations is not
just about money. Genealogist Janis Minor Forte says the discussion has
given African Americans the impetus to explore their history.
JANIS MINOR FORTE, Genealogist: In order for blacks to affirm that their ancestry were slaves in the United States, they must embark on a study process to identify their heritage.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Forte says it's difficult for African Americans to trace their history before 1865 and the end of slavery, since slaves' names were not listed in the census.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Many African Americans would think once they hit this one, the one without names in the 1860, in the 1850 census, that they would give up.
JANIS MINOR FORTE: Oh, no, no, their adventure has just begun, because from this... from this document, you can now go into the county courthouse and begin to look at the historical records of wills and probate and marriage records, and find the owners of these slaves. The county government, just like it does today, mandates that every single piece of your property is inventoried.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Forte has managed to trace her history back to 1810. She used an unusual record in identifying her great-great grandfather, Walton Minor.
JANIS MINOR FORTE: One of the most rewarding things that I found in, relative to researching his ancestry prior to 1870, when they were recorded on the census, is finding him documented in 1855, 1854, in the Greene County, Alabama, sheriff's jail because his owner had lost him as a gambling debt.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Now you said you were pleased when you found this, not that you were angry about the fact that your relative had been used as collateral, but that you had found this documented.
JANIS MINOR FORTE: I was absolutely ecstatic when I opened up this sheriff's registry log, and looking in it, found that a certain Negro man named Walton about 26 years of age and of black complexion was there in Green County, Alabama, in 1854. I was able to document, and this documentation actually added and lifted my great grandfather up off the page.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And do you think you should have reparations?
JANIS MINOR FORTE: Absolutely. For me, reparation is the filing of a claim for unpaid wages.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Alderman Doherty says that money should not be part of the reparations discussion.
BRIAN DOHERTY: Slavery should be addressed. Do they need an apology from the government? Should this have some closure? Yes. You start talking about money-- I just know how people are-- it's going to get very divisive.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Tillman and others insist a national debate on reparations will be healing, not divisive.
DOROTHY TILLMAN: We are not the only one that needs this. America needs this. America... America will never be what it ought to be until we are we should be. And America will never be what it ought to be until it discusses reparations for black Americans.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Tillman hopes many of the difficult questions surrounding reparations can be hammered out at a national conference she is planning in Chicago next February.