Reparations: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you will learn about reparations. First you will learn the definition of reparations, and how they have been paid and thought of historically. Then, you will dig into the debate over American slavery reparations.

A Terrible Legacy

The disgraceful 250 years of slavery in the United States has left a deep scar on the country. Although the Civil War ended slavery in the U.S., slaves were never compensated for their years of servitude. African Americans continue to be disproportionately impoverished and disadvantaged in present day America. So, should reparations be paid to African Americans for the crime of slavery? It is one of the most controversial questions in the U.S. As former slave Cornelius Holmes noted, 'Though the slavery question is settled, its impact is not. The question will be with us always. It is in our politics, our courts, on our highways, in our manner, and in our thoughts all the day, every day.'


You probably know about slavery, but maybe the idea of reparations is new to you. Reparations are something that one does or gives to correct a mistake or wrongdoing. Reparations are usually made by governments to make amends for wars, serious crimes, and abuse. You should think of the root word 'repair', because the aim of reparations is to fix things, so as to eliminate the negative consequences of the wrongdoing, and to make it as if the wrongdoing had never happened.

Reparations can be paid to governments or to individuals. But paying reparations can be tricky. For one thing, it is difficult to determine how reparations should be made as they can take the form of money, an apology, or some other act. If many years have passed and some victims have died. Should their descendants receive the reparations? And who should pay? If a government did something bad 50 years ago, should citizens born since that time have to pay?

A Short History of Reparations

Originally, reparations referred to war reparations. For centuries, the losing party in a war would usually have to pay the conquerors some money or tribute. Reparations were usually transferred between governments. Then, after WWII and the Paris Reparations Agreement of 1946, the idea of reparations changed. Germany would be forced not only to pay reparations for the war, but also the victims of the Holocaust. The Paris agreement recognized that countries have a legal obligation to offer reparation for human rights violations against individuals and civilian populations.

America and Slavery Reparations

Slavery in America lasted from 1619 until 1865. At the conclusion of the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman suggested that freed slaves be given, 40 acres and a mule. He set aside land on the Georgia and South Carolina coasts for resettlement. General Sherman's was the first idea for slavery reparations. But after President Lincoln was assassinated, new President Andrew Johnson and Congress rejected this idea and returned the land to white owners. In 1866 and 1867, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens introduced reparation bills which were passed by Congress but vetoed by President Johnson.

Abolitionist plea against slavery
Abolitionist plea against slavery

After the Civil War, newly freed slaves were subjected to harsh laws in the Southern states to keep blacks second-class for another 100 years. Blacks were barred from certain occupations, schools, neighborhoods, and even from voting. Blacks often made paltry wages and lived in poverty. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s sought to eliminate those laws, and to recognize the equality of black people in the United States. Again, the idea of reparations for unpaid slave wages was raised by Martin Luther King Jr., but it was quickly dismissed. African American communities continue to be plagued by poverty, discrimination, and poor educational outcomes. However, the idea of reparations remains divisive.

Arguments against Slavery Reparations

A majority of white Americans oppose any call for reparations. In fact, many white Americans reject any race-based program such as affirmative action, which gives minorities special considerations in education and employment. Opponents of reparations argue that they would only reignite racial tensions from the past. Others say too much time has passed, and descendants of slaves and slave owners have intermixed, so it's too hard to decide who should pay reparations and who should receive them.

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