Following the Civil War, General William T. Sherman met with twenty African American leaders who understood that the best way for Blacks to secure and prosper in their newfound freedom, they would need land ownership.

This revolutionary idea took hold with Sherman, who issued the Special Field Order No. 15, calling for the redistribution of 400,000 acres of land from Charleston, South Carolina to St John’s River in Florida. Divided into forty-acre plots for freed slaves, with one mule loaned from the army to each settler. And so the famous phrase “forty acres and one mule” came to be.

Yet the promise never came to fruition. Following Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Andrew Johnson signed a proclamation that took the land back, returning it to the slaveholders who had owned it before.

Now over 150 years after the end of chattel slavery in the U.S., Black Americans have yet to receive reparations for being held in bondage for generations. Yet it’s not a case of America not being willing to give reparations for the wrongdoings of the past. In fact, America has a history of reparations, just none have ever been designated for Black Americans:

It’s also important to note that the mistreatment of Blacks in America isn’t just relegated to slavery. Following the emancipation of Black slaves, Black people only continued to experience terrorism and oppression, which still exists today. From redlining to the school-to-prison pipeline, Black people experience significant inequalities due to systemic racism that has undermined any attempts at equality.

According to Duke University, Black Americans (12-13 percent of the population) hold less than 3% of the country’s wealth. This is due in large part to the fact that for decades Black people were unable to own land, then were victims of redlining, and to this day cannot get the same loans as white people with the same income and credit. Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at New York University, has shown that black families making $100,000 typically live in similar neighborhoods inhabited by white families making $30,000. Owning a house, getting a good job, and having the ability to save money is critical in establishing and building wealth, yet systemic racism has made this inordinately more difficult for Black people in relation to whites in America.

In June 2019, the House Judiciary Committee heard testimony on H.R. 40, a bill first introduced in 1989, that would study how the U.S. would implement reparations to black Americans. During the hearing, author Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed to the nation’s unjust past and reparations as a way forward:

“It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery,” he told lawmakers. “The matter of reparations is one of making amends and direct redress, but it is also a question of citizenship. In H.R. 40, this body has a chance to both make good on its 2009 apology for enslavement, and reject fair-weather patriotism, to say that this nation is both its credits and debits. That if Thomas Jefferson matters, so does Sally Hemings. That if D-Day matters, so does Black Wall Street. That if Valley Forge matters, so does Fort Pillow. Because the question really is not whether we’ll be tied to the somethings of our past, but whether we are courageous enough to be tied to the whole of them.” 

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