Reparations for Slavery

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Slavery was abolished in 1865, but the legacies of this institution may have lived on. In this lesson, we're going to explore the history of reparations, and see how this relates to the legacies of slavery in American history.


The Civil War ended in 1865. Seeing as we're now living in the 21st century, you might believe that the issues of the Civil War have been pretty much resolved by now. For the most part, they have; however there are a few lingering debates that have echoed across the last 150 years and are still with us today. Demographically, African Americans in the United States have lower life expectancy, lower rates of income, and higher rates of incarceration on average. Why? According to many people, the legacies of slavery were maintained through segregation and racism (which were legal into the 1960s), and since then have been maintained through other systems. This debate leads into another: what should we do about it? One proposal, which has been constantly debated since the 19th century, is reparation, or the compensation to African Americans for the wrongdoings of the past.

History of Reparations

The idea that African Americans should be compensated for slavery is an old one. Back before the Civil War, abolitionists were already proposing that slaves should be freed, then given money or property to help them start a new life. After all, slaves owned nothing, so freeing them without providing assistance seemed foolish. The idea that white property might be redistributed to former slaves made white slave owners very unhappy, and is one reason they fought so hard to maintain the institution.

Reparations were originally meant to help former slaves start a new life

As we all know, the debate over slavery reached its zenith when the South seceded in 1861. By 1864, when it was becoming clear that a Union victory was near, Northerners began talking about reparations in earnest. General Sherman, leading the Union campaign through Georgia, proposed that each slave family should be given 40 acres of land and a loan from the army to help them start their own farms. Once the war was over, the group in Congress called the Radical Republicans formally proposed laws to confiscate land from former slave owners and give each newly-freed black family 40 acres of land and a mule. It was vetoed by President Johnson.

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens led the call for reparations after the Civil War

The issue of reparations came back into the foreground of public debate several times. At the end of the 19th century, one proposal became popular that advocated for a pension program to assist former slaves, who were reaching old age by this point. Over half a century later, several Civil Rights organizations gathered support by renewing the cry for reparations. This time, they claimed that all black families were owed compensation for the racist legacies of slavery. The debate grew in the 1980s, resulting in a 1989 piece of legislation called the Conyers Bill that demanded the creation of a congressional commission to investigate the legacies of slavery. The bill did not pass, but Conyers reintroduced it in every session of Congress since.

US Representative John Conyers, who proposed the Conyers Bill

Reparations Today: Pros

The issue of reparations is still being debated today. So, what does each side have to say about this? Those who support reparations claim that slavery was morally and legally wrong, and that compensation is owed for those wrongs. Supporters of this idea point out that the federal government as granted compensation to many Amerindian nations for past wrongdoings, as well as Japanese-Americans for their forced internment in World War II. They also point out the troubled race relations in the United States today, claiming that slavery (and the failure of the government in preventing the rise of segregation) have left deep racial divides within the nation. No, we don't segregate busses any more, but black families are statistically more likely to be trapped in cycles of poverty.

Supporters claim that reparations will not only be a strong symbolic gesture that the government does not support racial inequality in the United States, but will be a practical way to help impoverished black communities become economically self-reliant. While the most common call for reparations still involves financial compensation, other proposals have been made as well, including land ownership, business loans, and stock options.

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