The spoils of slave labor: Why reparations from church and state are necessary

Our nation is often described as the richest country in the world. That description pops up when we marvel at the United States’ inability to confront poverty or adequately fund education, among other failings. Interestingly, that description is never followed with a question: How did the United States become so rich? Slave labor helped fill the nation’s coffers, build landmarks, and line landowners’ pockets.

Slave trade ledger, 1854. Wikimedia Commons.

Selling enslaved human beings saved Georgetown University from potential failure, as the school was “saddled with debt” in 1838. Former First Lady Michelle Obama poignantly described the irony of living in a house built by slaves. George Washington’s estimated $525 million fortune (adjusted for inflation), in part, derived from slave ownership.

Indentured servants and poor immigrants also helped build this nation, but they weren’t as economical labor as the transatlantic slave trade’s plentiful human inventory, which could re-supply itself.

Enslaved African Americans hoped their long nightmare, which began in 1619, would end almost 250 years later when Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and they were promised “40 acres and a mule” by his representative, Gen. William Sherman. After Lincoln’s assassination, his successor Andrew Johnson reneged on the promise and gave redistributed land back to the white plantation owners who previously held it. Furthermore, those actions came after many slaveowners had been financially compensated for losing their human property.

[B]astardized religion and theology were used to justify slavery as well as the ongoing dehumanization and demoralization of Black people. Bastardized religion became a tool of the empire.

Given the fact that many slaveowners received a form of reparations, it is especially incumbent that descendants of enslaved Black Americans should be compensated now. James Forman’s Black Manifesto demanded predominantly White churches and Jewish synagogues finance reparations. After all, bastardized religion and theology were used to justify slavery as well as the ongoing dehumanization and demoralization of Black people. Bastardized religion became a tool of the empire.

Our government mirrors the congregational church. Autonomy and states’ rights are fraternal twins. While there’s allegedly a separation of church and state in the United States, our currency claims In God We Trust. Not ending speeches with God bless America can put a political career in peril. I would argue that our U.S. government is merely an extension of the church. So, seeking reparations from predominantly White Christian churches and Jewish synagogues is short-sighted.

Those churches are, in large part, prosperous because of a nation built by slaves as well as an economic system and government sustained by that slave labor. Jewish communities also must reckon with how white privilege may have impacted their institutions and networks while exacerbating our nation’s massive racial wealth gap. Forman should have demanded the government finally give descendants of enslaved Black people 40 acres and a mule—with interest. That’s exactly what’s being asked now.

Those hoping to become the 2020 Democratic presidential nominee can’t ignore the raging reparations debate. Sens. Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren all grasp the historical context and support reparations, Vox reports. But, none of them have a plan for implementing such a proposal.

However, Senators Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders each tout individual policies aimed at lifting boats. While Sanders has come out against reparations, Booker backs a reparations study bill. Only Marianne Williamson, spiritual guru and political novice, comes to the table with a $100 to $500 billion reparations program. Williamson deserves credit for having a plan.

Still, University of Illinois economist Larry Neal told The Atlantic in 2014 that reparations would total $6.5 trillion. Other reporting notes the number goes as high as $14 trillion. And, that’s just in lost wages. No one is calculating the loss of military benefits to Black veterans.

A million African Americans joined the military during World War II as volunteers or draftees, and another 1.5 million registered for the draft. Photo of troops captured during the Battle of the Bulge, December 1944. Wikimedia Commons.

Many Black military veterans were denied G.I. benefits. They became the victims of housing and lending discrimination. Those benefits and home ownership were tickets for white veterans to joining the middle class and building wealth. Instead, the wealth-building tools were kept from Blacks, while others continue to prosper from the spoils of slave labor.

Our ancestors deserve compensation. They may no longer be physically in our midst, but their spirits continue surrounding us.

On this 50th anniversary of the Black Manifesto, it’s time for Forman’s demand for reparations to be heard—and acted upon. Enslaved Black Americans did most of the unpaid work that transformed the 13 Colonies into one of the richest countries of the world. Our ancestors deserve compensation. They may no longer be physically in our midst, but their spirits continue surrounding us. Seeing their descendants enjoy a measure of their labor’s fruit, I believe, would fill those spirits with joy. Reparations—seeds of a new legacy—would mean the dehumanization, demoralization, and sacrifice wasn’t entirely in vain. With that said, though, there’s not enough money to soak up the blood of the slaughtered.

This story was produced by Fellowship of Reconciliation


As an interfaith organization, FOR-USA's mission is to organize, train, and grow a diverse movement that welcomes all people of conscience to end structures of violence and war, and create peace through the transformative power of nonviolence.

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