Reparations has been a top agenda item for African American activists since the 1800s. After Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and his Union troops marched through the South during the Civil War, liberating slaves in their wake, there was a concern about what to do with the emancipated “contrabands of war.” Forty acres and a mule to each ex-slave was a measure proposed by the Radical Republicans but it never made it out of committee.
Down through the years the demand that Black Americans be compensated for their generations of working without pay has been raised by a number of individuals and organizations, including N’COBRA (National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America). It was a key issue advanced by a contingent of African Americans who attended the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in 2001. But the most they could get out of a UN sponsored affair was the admission that slavery was a crime against humanity. Compensation for the nearly four hundred years of slavery and the ravages of the Atlantic Slave Trade hardly gathered a ripple of attention.
A similar setback occurred in a Chicago courtroom in 2005 when Federal Judge Charles R. Norgle ruled that the reparations case before him was mainly political and should be decided by the legislative or executive branch of the government. He charged that the plaintiffs failed to explain themselves and the 17 corporations named as defendants and that the statute of limitations obviated damages for wrongs committed before slavery was abolished in 1868. The decision was rendered with prejudice and thereby making it virtually impossible to introduce the matter again at the District Court level.
While the quest for reparations may be null and void in the U.S. it seems to have received a fresh spurt of action from Caribbean leaders, particularly Prime Minister Baldwin Spencer of Antiqua and Barbuda, and Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves of St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Both leaders have put forth new initiatives that have given descendants of slaves in the Caribbean some hope that they will be compensated for the bondage endured by their ancestors.
“The legacy of slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean has severely impaired our development options,” said Prime Minister Spencer, addressing leaders at the recent United Nations General Assembly. “Reparations must be directed toward repairing the damage inflicted by slavery and racism.” Spencer is part of a 15-member Caribbean Community regional bloc that is making this demand for the former colonial rulers to pay for their past transgressions.
Unlike the confab in Durban, Spencer said, “it has to go beyond an apology…We have to recognize this genocide.”
Gonsalves, who has hosted his own reparations conferences, echoed Spencer’s assertions. “It’s a historic wrong that has to be righted,” Gonsalves told the Miami Herald. “Look, the Germans paid the Jews. There were reparations for the Japanese and the Maori in New Zealand. It’s not a confrontation; it’s a conversation. It’s not a protest; it’s an engagement.”
Getting the attention of some prominent African leaders and a few European diplomats has given Gonsalves a gust of optimism, but it will take major and sustained action to get the former colonial powers to accede to these demands. They face the same formidable resistance President Aristide got from France when he made his case for France to give back the money it took after the revolution deposed them from power.