Designed by Taylor Sharkey

A historical look at reparations and discussion surrounding them

Reparations have been a topic of discussion since 1865, when Gen. William T. Sherman issued Special Order No. 15. This order included promises of land and the grant of settlement for freed slaves on the abandoned rice fields stretching form Charleston, South Carolina, to the St. Johns River in Florida. 

"That field order was designed to address what many saw as a real need going forward, and some saw it as an important component of [freedmen] actually having land and the financial ability to move forward," Bobby Donaldson, a history professor at USC and director of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research, said.

However, the promises laid out in the order were revoked when President Andrew Johnson took office.

Todd Shaw, associate professor of political science and African American studies, has been teaching African American studies at USC for nearly two decades. Had the field order been followed through with, it could've had an impact on the socioeconomic standing of African American communities, Shaw said.

"The engines of beach front and other economic development in the Low Country have meant the loss of hundreds of acres of land that if they had been retained by Black families would have led to a much stronger Black middle class who likely could have exerted more influence in South Carolina politics," Shaw wrote in an email.

Donaldson said the main point of the Center for Civil Rights History and Research is to outline the inequalities that existed during the Civil Rights Movement. Donaldson explained why reparations have been a discussion since 1865: "The question is, how can one have equality if the resources have, from the very beginning, been unequal?"

Another part of the question of reparations, Donaldson said, is this: Should they be designed to address the inequities bred from slavery or should it address the inequities that extend beyond slavery? Reparations aren't just a check in the mail; they can be a correction to improve resources and opportunities to the disenfranchised, including an appropriate salary or living wage, granting affordable housing, investing in educational opportunities and better healthcare.

Terrance Weik, associate professor of anthropology at USC, said he has held many debates on reparations in his classes and often assigns positions to students to force them to think outside the box. He said it's important to understand slavery as having an intergenerational impact on African Americans and not as an immediate event; this is why the discussion of reparations matters.

Weik said the goal of reparations is "to address a crisis of confidence in the justice system in this country and finish some unfinished business, in terms of matters that should have been handled that have been ignored and covered over and so on."

While reparations haven't been granted nation-wide to descendants of slaves, there have been reparation grants on small scales in response to a variety of injustices. One instance is the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, signed by President Ronald Reagan, which awarded $20,000 per person to Japanese Americans who had been displaced in the internment camps during WWII. 

Weik has researched this topic and said the reason reparations for these Americans were approved could relate to America's societal view on the merits of Japanese Americans in comparison to African Americans. Another reason reparations for the descendants of slaves receives pushback is a fear of an opening of floodgates and a fear of responsibility, he said.

Donaldson mentioned the famous Briggs v. Elliot case in Summerton, SC, where poor farmers and sharecroppers sued the school district because of the lack of funding for black schools, which ended up being a part of the five cases included in Brown v. Board of Education.

"So I think the bigger issues that I just want to underscore is, one cannot have a discussion of reparations without having a serious and probing discussion about the history of race in this country," Donaldson said.

Shaw also agreed that a historical look at reparations and race relations in the United States could help expand the conversation and understand its future implications.

"We are in a period of renewed, overt, racial rhetoric and public policy coming from the national halls of government," Shaw wrote. "In such times, it is important to not get amnesia about American racial and ethnic politics and to consider how gaps of inequality are being widened — not decreased."


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