Doing Black History

Doing Black History

Almost a century ago, historian Carter G. Woodson declared the second week in February to be "Negro History Week." The focus on African American history eventually expanded to encompass the entire month, and little by little, to permeate curricula throughout the rest of the year as well. This exhibit explores the ways African American history has been learned and taught in schools, museums, and popular culture.

"The Georgia Negro: A Social Study," By W. E. B. Du Bois, 1900.

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    Doing Black History

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    Paying for the Past: Reparations and American History

    Reparations for African-Americans has been a hot topic on the presidential campaign trail, but the debate goes back centuries.

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    SPEAKER 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

    NATHAN: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.

    Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today's headlines. I'm Nathan Connolly.

    ED: I'm Ed Ayers.

    BRIAN: And I'm Brian Balogh.

    NATHAN: If you're new to the podcast, we're all historians. Each week, along with our colleague, Joanne Freeman, we explore the history of one topic that's been in the news.

    ED: Last month, students at Georgetown University accomplished something unprecedented.

    SPEAKER 5: Working overnight, undergrad students at Georgetown University have voted to add a small fee to pay the descendants of slaves sold by the university in the 19th century.

    ED: In 1838 Georgetown, the nation's oldest Catholic and Jesuit university, sold 272 enslaved people to pay off the school's debts. This group is known on campus today as the GU272. Now more than 175 years after the sale, students at the school have approved a fund to benefit GU272 descendants.

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: Our thought was how do we make people care about this. So we decided that people care when they're asked to invest.

    ED: Mélisande Short-Colomb just finished her sophomore year at Georgetown. She's a descendant of two families from the GU272 and is attending the university as a nontraditional student in her 60s. She helped organize the student advocacy group that created the details for the referendum.

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: Every student coming to Georgetown University will pay an additional $27.20 to their tuition. We decided to make it $27.20, which symbolically represents the original 272 people who were chosen to be sold. That money will go into a fund that will be collected by the university but dispersed by a board of directors made up of the descendants and students so we can form partnerships to help the descendant community in ways beyond what the university has offered.

    ED: Short-Colomb says that if every undergrad student pays $27.20 per semester that comes out to about $400,000 each year. But just because the students pass the referendum doesn't guarantee that reparations will happen. Now the measure goes to the university's board of directors. If it's approved, it will be the first reparations policy at a major American institution.

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: The university's position is pretty much we're proud of you, but we're not obligated or bound to do any of that, so we'll see what happens. Of course, we're sure that there will be conversation about it. But the board is not obligated to act on the referendum immediately either.

    ED: Even if the referendum doesn't get the green light from the board, ShortColomb says she's proud of the advocacy team's work getting the word out on campus. With nearly 58% turnout, it was the highest recorded participation in a Georgetown student election. On voting day, Short-Colomb says there was an invigorating energy radiating throughout the university.

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: The campus was buzzing. We had press spread out across the front of the school. People were talking. People were voting. We had a rally in Red Square. We were passing out "Yes I voted" buttons. It was very exciting.

    ED: Well, how late did it take for all the votes to come in?

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: The votes came in. It was a 24-hour window of voting.

    ED: I see.

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: God bless these children. All they had to do was open their computer and vote. I left everybody probably around 8:00. I'm like, "See you all later." They're like, "Are you coming over to the party?" I'm like, "Maybe." It got to be around 10:00, 10:30. I was exhausted. So I went to sleep. I was like, okay, I'll find out about this in the morning just like when I was a kid at Christmastime. So I'm knocked out sleeping. 1:15 my telephone rings. I answer the phone, "Hello." And all I can hear is screaming, "We won. We won." I'm like, "Oh wonderful." "We're coming over by you." I said, "No, you're not. Don't you dare come over here. I will see you in the morning." And that was it.

    So then I had to go and I had to look at the emails and everything that was coming in. I was happy and I think I cried a little bit and said thank you to my ancestors and I went back to sleep.

    ED: Were there people who spoke against it?

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: Yes. There were some people who opposed the referendum. The opposition felt like it was not the responsibility of Georgetown students. It is the responsibility of the administration.

    ED: I see.

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: Which is a valid point, but the administration has yet to make swift action. As the advocacy team, our position was who is the university if not students? If there were no students here, there would be no university. The sale and enslavement of our families was also for the university and for the students. So people come to Georgetown University from all over the world voluntarily because there is something to receive here that will make their lives better.

    We're a class of students. We are four classes of students who are starting something that will be an endowment to Georgetown University for years to come. It is more lasting than tulips.

    ED: So the plan is not to spend $400,000 a year, but to put part of that into an endowment?

    MÉLISANDE SHORT-COLOMB: Yes. This will be an ongoing process that cements the descendant community and the student body for the next 180 years so that in 360 years we will have been able to institute a complete circle of change from enslaving and selling people for the benefit of an institution to investing in a common goal for the future.

    BRIAN: Today's debate over reparations extends far beyond college campuses. Democratic presidential contenders like Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have come out in favor of some kind of compensation for centuries of unpaid African American labor.

    NATHAN: Reparations is a complicated, often contentious issue that started even before slavery had ended. There's also a lively discussion about how governments can compensate for other historical injustices, like colonialism.

    ED: But in this program we're focusing on reparations for African Americans specifically. We'll look as a unique moment when African Americans in Florida got compensation for the destruction of their community.

    BRIAN: We'll also discuss how slavery spawned a racial wealth gap that shapes the lives of millions of Americans today.

    NATHAN: We wouldn't even be talking about reparations today if it wasn't for Callie House. In the late 19th century she helped launch the first mass reparations movement led by African Americans.

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: Callie House was a remarkable woman. Here you have somebody who was a slave who only went to education in what we call the elementary grades, K, Four, five. Mother was a washerwoman and she, in fact, was a washerwoman herself. And yet she ends up having enough vision to start a pension movement for old people, like the old people who had been slaves, at a time where there was no Social Security.

    NATHAN: Mary Frances Berry is a historian at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on Callie House.

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: To do it as a woman at a time at the late 19th century, women did not run organizations that had men and women in them. She's just incomprehensible in a way and so unique and took so many risks and was so courageous.

    NATHAN: Did you see anything in her early life or young adulthood that might have shaped her activism?

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: Callie House was sitting in church and heard the preacher and this white man who had come through there, Mr. Bond, come through and talk about how people ought to join an organization that he had that was going to get pensions for the old ex-slaves. As she listened to what he said, she thought this doesn't make any sense because, first of all, I don't know how he's going to do that. But if he can do that, then we could just do that for ourselves. We don't need him to come around signing up people and collecting dues from them.

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: There was a Black man who was working with him. She started talking to him about how to do this. So she decided, well, we should just do it ourselves. Why don't we? She remembered that when she was in school they read the Constitution. She said the Constitution has something in there about ... She said titioning your government, not petitioning your government. And therefore we can tition the government ourselves. So she asked him how did they go about doing this. He said, well, they paid members of Congress to introduce bills. They've had lawyers with the dues they collected. What you do is you ask the Congress whether they will, in fact, give pensions to the old people. That is how she got started thinking about it.

    NATHAN: One of the things that you've outlined quite compellingly is that in the modern moment, more contemporary moment when people talk about reparations, one of the things that they say is that you don't have people who are being compensated who directly experienced slavery. So it makes it very muddy and murky to imagine any kind of compensation that wouldn't go directly to those who suffered the most profound aggrievements. But you're pointing to a moment in the late 19th century where those, as you describe it, who are literally bearing the welts and the scars of the master's lash are themselves demanding some kind of reparations.

    NATHAN: Just give me some sense about the mass movement that you're describing that Callie House is organizing is looking like. How does the movement itself really begin to pick up steam?

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: Well, she traveled around. By that time, her children were old enough that the older ones could take care of the younger ones because her husband died. So she was able to leave them there. She traveled around on trains, going places. They collected dues, five cents, whatever people had. They used the money to support this movement and the transportation. The other thing she did which people very much appreciated, as she traveled around she had people who could write sign their names to these petitions. The people who couldn't write, somebody else would write it for them.

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: She said, "I'm going to collect the names of everybody who was a slave so that if they ever give us anything, somebody can look back here and see who the people were." There were chapters of this ex-slave pension movement, not just in the South, but there were also chapters in the North. There was a chapter in New York. There were chapters in Ohio. There were chapters out in the Black towns. There were chapters everywhere there were any Black folk who had been slaves, there were chapters of this movement. So it was nationwide.

    Now the Pension Bureau, when it got very concerned about what they were doing and all the meetings, they said, "We have to go and do something about this woman because this woman is dangerous. She has these Negroes thinking that somebody is going to give them something for their work and we know we're not going to give them anything. What are they going to do when they find out we're not giving them anything? We need to stop her in her tracks."

    NATHAN: Now the federal government prosecutes Callie House and basically drags her into court. I'm curious what their argument was in the case against her.

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: Right. It was the most heartbreaking and frivolous argument. They said that we're going to go after her for fraud. We're going to say that what is the fraud? At a time when she knew or should have known that the federal government would never give those Negroes anything, she went out organizing Negroes to try to get something. So therefore that's fraud. She went out organizing people and sending petitions to the Congress and hiring lawyers and arguing in the public forum, the public square, that these Negroes should get a pension. She should have known that we were never going to give them anything.

    So she was misleading these Negroes and they were gullible. She might have been trying to make some money out of it because she might have been collecting the dues to enrich herself. But the fraud was she should have known that the government would never give them anything. So she shouldn't have been telling them that they should try to get something.

    NATHAN: Were there specific agencies that were collaborating in this effort?

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: Yes. The Pension Bureau was the agency with its lawyers that were out tracking and sent the undercover people, and then the Justice Department was the litigation arm of doing this, bringing this litigation. It was the success of her movement, the fact that it kept growing and the letters that they kept getting from these folks in the communities, white folks, saying, "We don't know what the Negroes are going to do, whatever, whatever." But they decided to go after them because it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. They said, "We can't control it."

    So they put together this litigation strategy, accused her of that, charged her in the federal district court in Nashville, obviously with an all-white, male jury. They lied to the court. They told the court that she had no chapters, that this was just something she made up, that there really wasn't any organization. She had just pretended she had an organization. Now the court, of course, convicted her. On the day that they convicted her, all of these Black people came down to the court and the press reported that they were out there singing and crying and lamenting, that it was a great, sad display by all the Black people who came from miles around to be there to try to support her.

    They convicted her and they sent her off to prison in Jefferson City, Missouri where the women were sent in those days.

    NATHAN: Give me a sense of what's happening to the wider reparations movement while Callie House is incarcerated. And is there any sense at all that there are those who are carrying her banner even if she might not be on the streets?

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: Well, I found that the movement continued while she was in prison and when she got out. She was not involved, but it continued. When she got of prison, she was sick and shortly after that she died. In some places the chapters became Garvey chapters, Marcus Garvey chapters, because Marcus Garvey supported reparations. In other places, they kept their name. In Atlanta, for example, I have a picture of one of the people at the Atlanta chapter. They would collect money and go out and help other poor Negroes as a mission that they kept up while they were there.

    Other places all around the country where there were chapters, they just continued on. You can trace from then all the way up to the modern reparations movement with organizations like NCOBRA and all the rest of them that exist. You have people who came out of those movements and have simply just perpetuated the cause since that time. So it didn't die as a result of them getting her. It inhibited the movement forward, but the movement didn't die.

    NATHAN: Well, this is one of the things that is just so incredible about this story. I mean you're actually describing somebody in Callie House who really is an architect for what becomes longer, deeper streams of Black nationalism through the 20th century. One organization literally is morphing into another one. I mean you have basically the precursor to the Garvey movement, and as we know, the Garvey movement becomes foundational not just for NCOBRA, but also for members of the Nation of Islam and then there are obviously other forms of Black nationalism that are coming out of that.

    And yet with all that we know about people like Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey and certainly other activists across the South, like Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, Callie House, as you know better than most, is relatively unknown. I'm curious about what your research helps to explain why she's so overlooked.

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: The first thing is that we have a paradigm about what different periods of Black history are supposed to be about. We still think that the late 19th century and early 20th century is about WEB and Booker T. No matter what you say and the club women, Rosalyn Terborg-Penn and others, pushed them in there a little bit. But basically it's still Booker T. and WEB and the men. Also at a time when we were pointing to great or first among Negroes, mainly first to get educated, first to do this and that and the other, here she was this barely educated woman who in many ways for the elites would be an embarrassment.

    And yet here she is up speaking to people and big groups and going around churches talking to people and have people believing in her and being an honest poor person who is able to do this and have 300,000 dues-paying members. That's more than any other Black organization had up to that time. I don't know how many have that members now. But it's just quite extraordinary, but she does not fit the storyline of what Black history is supposed to be. Also so many people don't believe in reparations or if they do believe in it, Black people, they're afraid to talk about it. So that since she was about pensions which convert to reparations, then that means ... and it's Black nationalism, which some people think that you shouldn't talk about or that that's not really a theme we would be interested in.

    NATHAN: You have an effort on Callie House's part to really document who exactly was enslaved, where they were, their experience is obviously going to be critical to any reparations movement. I'm curious about how we might be able to build directly on Callie House's labor and that of her organization which is namely to say, can we take the actual membership lists that were compiled by the national ex-slave associations and their various chapters and begin a very concrete discussion about reparations? If we could, what would that look like?

    MARY FRANCES BERRY: Well, somebody needs to go. I tell people, "You should go down to the National Archives and look at those lists yourself and find your folk and find other people's folk." That's the first thing that you should do. And then after you do that, somebody should trace ... maybe one of the organizations should trace all of these people whose names are there. If a reparations ever come to pass, there is an argument for a policy that gives something to slave descendants. I call them American slave descendants. That whether or not they're on that list because she wasn't able to put everybody on the list. That was a goal, but she didn't achieve that.

    But there's no reason why you can't start with the people whose names are there and say, "Well, okay. We're not going to try to give everybody one by one $100 or whatever it is we're going to give. But at least these people we know and then let's see what we do for the larger group of people."

    NATHAN: Mary Frances Berry is a Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania. She's also the author of My Face is Black is True: Callie House and the Struggle for Ex-Slave Reparations.

    Lizzie Jenkins was just five years old when her mother told her about their family's connection to Rosewood.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: My mom was an eighth grade scholar, which was equivalent to a PhD. My mom wasn't afraid of anything. I'm just like her too.

    NATHAN: It was a story passed down to her mother by Mahulda Gussie Brown Carrier, a family member who lived through the tragic events that unfolded in the first week of 1923.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: The most important thing she wanted was for me to authenticate what people have been saying. She does not want the history forgotten. She does not want it repeated. Make sure I inform everybody. Keep it alive.

    NATHAN: Rosewood was situated near the gulf coast of Florida, about 50 miles southwest of Gainesville. It was an African American community with all the trappings of a typical Southern town. For a half-century, the people of Rosewood lived a steady, peaceful existence. But in 1923 the community was thrown into racial turmoil by a false accusation, one that was common during the Jim Crow era. It all started when a white woman from the neighboring town of Sumner claimed a Black man had assaulted her.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: James Taylor's wife was having an affair. A married woman, she was married to him with one son. We understand that she was tired of cheating on her husband and she wanted to take a break, dissolve the relationship. The young man she was keeping company with, her white lover, did not want to and a fight ensued. As a result, she ended up black and blue, well, bruised. She had to explain to her husband what happened to her. This particular morning, she needed an excuse and the easiest thing for her to say when he got home, saw her, the bruises in her face, she said to him, "I was assaulted by a Black man."

    He became furious. He was enraged. So he made contact with the men at his workplace that worked for him, the white men, and told them what she said happened, allegedly happened. Of course, they too became enraged because a Black man touching a white woman back then was an unpardonable sin.

    NATHAN: By sheer coincidence, the KKK had held a rally in Gainesville the day before and as word of the assault spread, James Taylor gained an army of angry white men at his disposal.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: So the KKK or the mob was already in Gainesville, already fired up, ready to kill anything Black that got in their way. So he invited them to Sumner and of course they came. The newspaper said approximately 400 to 500 mobsters came to Sumner to help James Taylor catch the person who assaulted his wife.

    NATHAN: Lizzie says hostilities were also driven by a personal feud between James Taylor and Sylvester Carrier.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: Sylvester Carrier was a Rosewood resident that didn't play anything, my mom said, but a piano. People thought he was hostile. He was not hostile. He was protective of his women. He hated James Taylor and James Taylor hated him. So for James Taylor, this was an opportune time for him to get even with Sylvester.

    NATHAN: On the second day, tensions culminated in a deadly shootout. The lynch mob had descended on Rosewood in pursuit of Sylvester Carrier, targeting a house where he was rumored to be staying. Little did they know, Sylvester was armed and ready.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: When they got to the house, what they didn't realize, Sylvester had recruited his men, his cousins, and friends to be there Tuesday night to help him fight. They were there, hidden in the dark when they came in. They were met head-on with gunfire because the first thing they did, Poly Wilkerson who was a deputy sheriff deputized in Sumner and Henry Andrews, both of them were haters. They were so bold. They walked in and kicked the door in where Sylvester and his mom lived and his dad. When they did, he shot and killed both of them. My aunt was in the house and all of the women had gathered there because that was like a place where they went when there was trouble in the community.

    They went to Aunt Sarah's house because she was the pillar of the community and they were talking to find out what was going on. So women were there in that house and children. They yelled after he killed those two and they were shooting in the house too. Somebody in the house said, "Aunt Sarah's been shot." That was Sylvester's mom. And then Sylvester yelled out to everybody, "Shoot. Everybody, shoot." And they started shooting. It was more white men killed than those two. Nobody knows the count, but they were killed. The women inside the house heard them yelling, "Oh hell. I'm hit. Help."

    NATHAN: With at least two dead and many more injured, the lynch mob staggered back to Sumner in defeat. But they soon reassembled and for the next few days, hundreds of whites rampaged through Rosewood as Black residents escaped with the help of Sheriff Bob Walker.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: The sheriff worked, my mom said, 96 hours straight in an effort to get them out of Rosewood safe. He worked hard with the train conductors in Cedar Key. He begged them. He pleaded and all of them told him no. "No, no. Bob, we cannot jeopardize the lives of our family by getting involved." However, on day three, late day three, the Bryce brothers from Brightsville said, "Bob, we'll help you but it has to be after midnight, early morning." So on day four, early morning between 4:00 and 5:00, the train came from Cedar Key, stopped in Rosewood, picked up the men, women, and children, the elderly hiding out. Many of them was at John Wright's house and in his barn and in his store hidden out until the train got to Rosewood.

    NATHAN: By the end of the week, all of Rosewood had been burned to the ground. While the incident made national news at the time, it soon faded from public memory. So for the next 70 years the story of Rosewood was kept alive in the hearts and minds of the surviving families.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: It stayed a secret because they did not want, the whites did not want the truth known that they had lost the battle. They were embarrassed. They didn't want it to be known. Every Black Rosewood survivor/descendant will tell you this behind closed doors. I think I'm the only vocal person. But if I talk to them about it or if they talk to me, "Yeah, Liz. That's true. We know that." But they don't talk about it. But I do.

    NATHAN: Decades later in 1992, Stephen Hanlon was looking for a new case to take on as the head of the pro bono division at the largest law firm in Florida. He only had two criteria.

    STEPHEN HANLON: The one was the wonderful index and the other was impossible index. If it hit real high on both of those, then I was really interested, and Rosewood went off the charts on both of those.

    NATHAN: In the early 1990s, a man named Michael O. McCarthy reached out to you about a potential case. Can you explain who he was and how he introduced you to the Rosewood massacre?

    STEPHEN HANLON: Michael O. McCarthy was a hustle. He had claimed that he had signed up the last two survivors of the Rosewood massacre, Lee Ruth Bradley Davis in Miami and Minnie Lee Langley in Jacksonville, and that he heard about me. He came into my office one day telling me that story, that he'd signed up the last two survivors of the Rosewood massacre and that he tried to sell that story in Hollywood but they said it really needs a lawsuit so that we can have the conflict in the '90s instead of in the '20s. So that's why he wanted to do a movie. I didn't have any interest in a movie, but I did have interest in the case.

    So I went down with him and I met Lee Ruth Bradley Davis in Miami and she was a very strong and impressive woman to me. Then I went over to Jacksonville and met Minnie Lee Langley and that's when I knew I wanted to take that case because she was a truly ... She was one of the most remarkable people I've ever met in my life. She vividly remembers what happened and she has a really compelling story to tell.

    NATHAN: Ms. Langley sounds like she was really instrumental in convincing you to take it on. I'm curious what your sense was of the challenges of the case just as it was outlined in the law. In other words, what was, to your mind, such an impossibility about a case like the Rosewood one?

    STEPHEN HANLON: It was a 70-year old case. Witnesses had obviously died and/or disappeared. I knew that we would have no chance in a court, state or federal. But I did know from previous experience in litigation about the process in Florida that is called a claims bill. They have several grounds for such a claim. One of them is that the state has a moral obligation to pay somebody something. I thought that was a great legal test. I thought that sounds like I can make that one here because my clients were witnesses to unprosecuted murders and the state had an obligation to restore my clients to justice, compensate them for what they lost, and restore their land to them, and prosecute and bring to justice the individuals involved.

    The governor was specifically on notice of what was about to happen in that town in time with all the Klan and everybody else surrounding it and he knew about that ... I think my recollection is six days in advance and he just went off hunting. And then nobody ever prosecuted. They had an obligation in 1923, '33, '43, '53, '63. So that was the basic theory of the case.

    NATHAN: The Rosewood hearing was open to the public. Paint a picture for me in terms of what the scene looked like when you arrived at the Capitol Building on the first day of the hearing.

    STEPHEN HANLON: Well, there were hundreds of people that were in this large room in the bottom of the Capitol Building. There was a stage in front of that where the two hearing officers and myself and my opponent, Jim Peters, and our witnesses had tables, kind of traditional courtroom scene, but not in a court. There was national and international press. We all walked over there under heavy police security and were ushered in a back room where my opposing counsel, Jim Peters, had asked me, "Can I come in and talk to these folks?" I said, "Of course you can." And he did. He was very gracious about it. He told them he was proud of them, but he had an obligation to defend the state.

    NATHAN: Wow. Throughout the whole process, you were careful to use the term compensation instead of reparation. Why? What do you think the difference is there?

    STEPHEN HANLON: First of all, compensation is the word that's used in the statute. So I didn't want anybody saying, "Well, we don't have that." If I said reparations, they would say, "Well, we don't have a statute for reparations. We got one for compensation, if you want to seek compensation. But we don't have a statute for reparations." So I had to use the word compensation. But everybody knew what was going on. I mean it was reparations by another word.

    NATHAN: Jim Peters, the defense lawyer representing the state, what were some of his arguments against compensation?

    STEPHEN HANLON: Well, he tried the statute of limitations but that didn't work because there is no statute of limitations on capital murder. So that argument didn't go very well. Then Jim dug up some witnesses somewhere who came in and testified, "Well, the Black people just egged them on to do it." That was kind of silly. But I mean it's all he had. Plus the complaint that these are Florida government officials and they're not here to defend themselves. That's unfortunate, but it's not a legal argument that would work. He had a very difficult job to do and he did it with dignity.

    After Minnie Lee Langley went on, she was first. I mean you could hear a pin drop when she testified. I mean she's right there with Sylvester Carrier, right inside the front door. He's got his left arm around her and he's got his shotgun in his right hand. He's holding the end of it with his left hand. The constable breaks through the door and Sylvester just blows him away. And then a second deputy constable comes through and Sylvester blows him away. Minnie Lee Langley is there to tell that story. I mean it's just stunning, that story. I always knew she was going to be my lead witness.

    NATHAN: In spite of how long there was in terms of years between the initial event and the case being heard, the Rosewood Bill did in fact pass in 1994. The Rosewood Bill stipulated that elderly survivors who experienced a massacre would receive $150,000 and that a $500,000 fund would be set up for the families and descendants who could prove that they lost property. Did the families think that this was a fair amount?

    STEPHEN HANLON: Well, the key question is did Arnett Doctor? Because he was the leader of the family. I went around Florida to where these folks lived. I went to their AME churches on a Sunday and spoke. The one thing I said was, "You want me to ask for money. I'm going to ask for money. We don't just want a memorial or a plaque. I'll ask for the money, but be careful what you ask for because money and families do not get along well together. It's going to present problems." Because no amount of money could compensate these people for what had been taken away from them.

    But this was the first time. This was the first time. So you know when you're the first one that goes through the wall, you're not going to get as much as the next person. It was announced. Arnett and I were in the Capitol Building and he found out that number on that settlement. He went through the roof. He said, "No way. I'm not going to take it." I said, "Well, think about it overnight and I'll think about it overnight and let's talk about it tomorrow." We went out for lunch the next day. I said, "Arnett, I'll go back there and tell them no deal if you want me to, but I'm not going to do that until you go down to St. Petersburg and tell your uncle that he's not going to get that $150,000."

    After lunch he said, "You know what? Why don't you go back and tell them? I don't want to have anything to do with it. You tell them." That's what I did and we got it resolved. The money meant nothing to the survivors, nothing. They gave it to their church. They gave it to their kids, et cetera.

    NATHAN: As for the $500,000 fund, Lizzie said the bill made it difficult for descendants to prove their families' connections to Rosewood. But to her, it was more about recognition than compensation.

    LIZZIE JENKINS: Some folks got $200 or $300, but to them it said, "We did you wrong." I worked hard in helping with the family trees because in order to get compensated you had to show proof that you were connected. I worked really hard on my family tree. I did not get one penny, but I was rewarded. When I say rewarded, I was happy to know that we accomplished respect and recognition. You did us wrong. You need to pay. I think it's important to recognize people if you destroy their land, their home, their property. I think they need to be paid. We here in

    the United States pay other people if we destroy their property.

    Everybody is paid except Black people. We're not paid for anything. This country basically was built on my ancestors' muscles, shoulders, and blood-soaked tears. Reparation is a small token of appreciation, very small. I think more people need to step forward and require that we are compensated. I can't do it by myself. I find people afraid to talk about Rosewood. I have cousins right here in Archer. They are still afraid to go to Rosewood and tell me how crazy I am for going there. And I go there and sit on the porches and see the kids eat ice cream and watch the white people pass by. I'm not afraid.

    NATHAN: Lizzie Jenkins is a retired schoolteacher and the founder and president of the Real Rosewood Foundation. Stephen Hanlon also helped tell that story. He's a retired public interest lawyer currently serving as general counsel for the National Association for Public Defense.

    WILLIAM DARITY: I think the entire trajectory of how racial economic inequality has evolved in the United States would have been completely altered had the initial land allocation been made to the formerly enslaved.

    BRIAN: This is William Darity. He's an expert on the racial wealth gap and he's studied wealth inequality for decades. Here, he's talking about a policy from 1865 known as 40 acres and a mule.

    WILLIAM DARITY: My suspicion is that we would not have this conversation or need the conversation about reparations at all had the initial order been implemented.

    BRIAN: Before the end of the Civil War, General William Sherman issued an order that promised ex-slaves a large swath of coastal land that ran from northern Florida all the way up into South Carolina. Each family would be given up to 40 acres to farm and build a new prosperous life.

    WILLIAM DARITY: This designation was made and actually executed up to the point where upwards of, I believe, 4000 slave families were settled on the lands. But the lands were subsequently taken from them and returned to the slaveholders or the former slaveholders by Andrew Johnson. This shaped the foundations for racial wealth inequality in the United States, a foundation that is experienced today in a quite dramatic fashion. Perhaps it's the most extreme expression of economic inequality between Blacks and whites in the United States of any other measure that's available to us.

    BRIAN: Can you share with us your knowledge about what happened to some of these formerly enslaved people that had their land stripped from them?

    WILLIAM DARITY: It could have had implications not only for opportunities to engage in farming, but also other kinds of possibilities at a future point, including real estate development, including the prospect of establishing rental properties for retail activity. Some of the land that was initially allocated to the formerly enslaved on the islands along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia has become some of the most treasured recreational properties in the United States today, Hilton Head Island and the like. Yeah, we would have had a very different kind of potential for Black economic development had the 40 acres actually been delivered. What we had instead was wealth deprivation.

    BRIAN: Yet in spite of all the barriers, and they range from lynching to just terror, African Americans were able to acquire land of their own. Could you give us a sense of the scope, the number of African Americans, how much land they owned and what some of the barriers they faced were?

    WILLIAM DARITY: In the aftermath of the Reconstruction era, the formerly enslaved community in the South managed to acquire upwards of 15 million acres of land by dint of their own effort and actually their high levels of motivation. That 15 million acres of land was Black-owned property at the start of the 20th century. In the course of the first 60 to 70 years of the 20th century, that land was seized, appropriated, owners were driven off of the land, and as you mentioned, in some instances the owners were lynched as a mechanism for taking over their property. So by the time we get into the 1980s, the best estimate is about one million acres of Southern land was still in the hands of Black Americans.

    This was a dramatic change and was a dramatic change that was associated with essentially a white terror campaign for the purposes of wealth stripping of the property that was held by Blacks.

    BRIAN: Let's talk economics for a second. Explain to us in simple terms why land is so crucial to wealth accumulation.

    WILLIAM DARITY: Well, I always like to say that you had an acre of land on Manhattan you probably wouldn't have to bother asking that question. But obviously properties in other parts of the country are typically not as valuable as the land in Manhattan. But I do want to emphasize that the value of land is not exclusively linked to the purposes of farming. That land is significant because it's the site on which we engage in virtually all of our commercial activities as well as being the sites where we have residences. So as a consequence, ownership of land that can be transformed into a variety of purposes gives you a significant foundation for wealth.

    I think one of the richest landholders in the United States is probably Ted Turner. I think somebody estimated at some stage that Ted Turner's landholdings are one-quarter of all of the land that's held collectively by Black Americans.

    BRIAN: Wow. What do people get wrong in their understanding or lack of understanding of the racial wealth gap?

    WILLIAM DARITY: Maybe it might be helpful to illustrate how large the racial wealth gap is as the starting point here. If you were to look at the middle Black household and the middle white household in the United States, you would find that the middle Black household had a net worth that's estimated at $17,600 and the middle white household would have a net worth estimated at $171,000.

    BRIAN: Wow.

    WILLIAM DARITY: At the median or at the middle of the distributions for each group, Black households have about 10 cents to the dollar that's held by white households. I think that the thing that folks get most wrong is related to the perception of Blacks as being dysfunctional in the United States, I mean specifically Black Americans who are descendants of folks who were enslaved in the United States.

    One specific is an observation that frequently is made that the racial wealth gap is a consequence of educational differences between Blacks and whites. There's no evidence to support this. In fact, Black heads of household with a college degree have two-thirds of the net worth of white heads of household who never finished high school. That's one argument. A second argument we frequently hear is that the racial wealth gap is a consequence of family structure differences between Blacks and whites, that Blacks have less stable families, more female-headed families, and that explains why this gap exists.

    In fact, white families with a single parent actually have more than two times the wealth of Black families with two parents. Another argument that's frequently made is that it must be because Black folks are too profligate, that we don't save enough, we're spendthrift. But if you look at the systematic evidence on savings behavior, you'd find that if you take into account a household's income level, whites actually spend 1.3 times as much as Blacks. I think that that spending differential is facilitated by the fact that whites have greater levels of wealth.

    The foundation for the wealth gap in my estimation has to be intergenerational transmission effects, that Black parents, Black grandparents, have far fewer resources and far less of a capacity to provide financial support for the subsequent generations because of their own experiences in being deprived of wealth or being stripped of wealth.

    BRIAN: Let me ask about the biggest myth about reparations. What would that be?

    WILLIAM DARITY: I'm thinking about myths here in the sense of arguments against. One of the statements that's frequently made is that there are no living victims, so this is not something that should be bothered with at all. It's absolutely true. There are no direct living victims of enslavement in the United States. However, the case for reparations is not predicated exclusively on slavery. I really recoil when people sometimes talk about slavery reparations. The motivation for a reparation program is actually three tiers or phases of injustice and their cumulative consequences to the present moment.

    The first phase is slavery itself, but then we have to take into account the Jim Crow period as well and also ongoing racism and discrimination in the United States. All of those are things that have to be part of the compensation package.

    BRIAN: Well, you're certainly aware that a number of Democratic candidates for president who are running are talking about reparations. Does this give you hope? Are there any specific plans that you think would make a good start in carrying out reparations?

    WILLIAM DARITY: I think that we're actually at a rather remarkable moment. Perhaps this is the first moment since the Reconstruction era where major political candidates are even uttering the term reparations or having to respond to questions about what their position is on reparations. So there's one candidate who has actually talked about a numerical value and that is Marianne Williamson. Initially she talked about a restitution that would amount to about $100 billion. I think I immediately complained that that sum was paltry in terms of the best estimates I've seen of what the compensation should be.

    She's adjusted to say it should be between 200 to 500 billion dollars. I'm absolutely convinced that your minimum range estimates have to be in the trillions of dollars. But she is the only one I'm aware of who's actually talked about an amount. There's several candidates who have said that they are in support of the formation of a commission to study reparations and to develop a program of restitution. I think I'm personally very pleased with that. That seems like a critical step because I think it's essential as a prelude to the development of a full reparations program.

    To the extent that there are political candidates who are saying that they're in favor of that step, I think that this is a far more positive moment than any other I've seen in my lifetime.

    BRIAN: Professor Darity, you've referred to this positive moment we're at. How do you explain how and why we've arrived at this moment?

    WILLIAM DARITY: I think it may be in part because of a certain degree of ferment that has been generated organically from within Black America where there is now an inclination on the part of a significant number of Black Americans to actually push presidential candidates to say where they stand on the reparations question, that this is becoming more and more of a litmus test in terms of their commitment to the needs of Black America.

    BRIAN: William Darity is a professor of public policy, African and African American studies, and economics at Duke University.

    NATHAN: Ed, Brian, I want you all to consider just for a second the big, long history of reparations and really how diverse different reparations claims are. It might surprise us to hear the following clip from one of our most decorated 20th century civil rights activists.

    MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: At the very same time that America refused to give the Negro any land, through an act of Congress our government was giving away millions of acres of land in the West and the Midwest, which meant that it was willing to undergird its white peasants from Europe with an economic floor. But not only did they give the land, they build land grant colleges with government money to teach them how to farm. Not only that, they provided county agents to further their expertise in farming. Not only that, they provided low interest rates in order that they could mechanize their farms.

    Not only that, today many of these people are receiving millions of dollars in federal subsidies not to farm and they're the very people telling the Black man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. This is what we're faced with and this is the reality. Now when we come to Washington in this campaign, we're coming to get our check.

    NATHAN: So that was 1968. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's last formal political action as part of the poor people's campaign.

    ED: One of the things that's so powerful about the King quote is how much he reminds us that it is about repair, that mistakes or blindnesses at the beginning made it seem invisible, out of sight when the Homestead Act, it doesn't feel racialized to white people when they're doing that. But now anything that's making amends for those blindnesses has to sound like repair rather than something positive. It's the language itself, in some ways, is pulling against the sense of justice that King was talking about.

    You have to point out that there's no reparation without understanding what was damaged. So it's not merely labor that was lost, wealth that was not accrued, but acts of the government that actively undercut African American efforts at economic improvement. I think one way to think about this is that rather than making reparations just about all of the past, let's make it the government addressing things that the government had done in an earlier time. It seems to me that that would focus the debate in a way that people would have a clearer sense of just exactly what was at stake.

    NATHAN: The line that I think was really just galvanizing for me was when you had the founder of the Rosewood Foundation, Lizzie Jenkins, talking about it not being about compensation but recognition. In some ways, and this not in any way to foreclose a discussion of financial payments or compensation, but I do think there is something to be said about the need to at least begin a discussion that acknowledges that there was an immoral act that claimed people's lives, foreclosed futures, snatched land when they acquired it. I mean there's a lot that can be done just at the level at re-narrating in a public facing way the history of slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow that simply has not happened.

    BRIAN: I absolutely agree with you on that, Nathan, but I would also add what I consider to be the other half of the obstacle which is paying reparations kind of acknowledges that we haven't closed the gap, that we haven't made up for that history that you just referred to. The willingness to acknowledge the disadvantage that millions of Americans face today because of acts in the past is the other half of the calculation that, in my opinion, leads people to resist reparations.

    Now, I disagree with that position. But I think we have to confront both the history and the acknowledgment that that history has produced the kinds of inequalities we face today before we can really effectively expect to win a reparations debate.

    ED: Part of this too is that this is not just one big sin, but it's a series of telescoping sins. You think about the Georgetown 272 effort and what they're directing that money toward are the communities in Louisiana where the descendants lived for so long, doing things like providing eyeglasses for the people there who otherwise wouldn't have them. If you think about this immoral set of acts unfolded across the entire landscape of the United States and across the entire expanse of American history, it's almost as if we need to take it apart before we can name each particular part of immorality.

    I think the people in the 20th century can look at housing markets and realize that was across the entire United States. They can look at school segregation. But then a large part of the nation's history was embedded in the South, not only slavery, but then the century of segregation with the sanction of the state is also uniquely Southern. In some ways you think about to whom should reparation be paid. It's interesting for me to think about the Georgetown example, that they are paying it not only to individuals but to the communities where those individuals lived and where their disadvantages were made manifest.

    In some ways, to understand the problem it's as if we had to take it apart. Again, I thought that was what was so powerful about King is he was taking apart and talking about very specific things that people did. I think maybe that might be a way for people to comprehend exactly what the repairs are for and to.

    NATHAN: Yeah. I would agree. I mean it's impossible to compensate a family that was broken apart by the internal slave trade. How do you compensate? How do you turn that into a dollar amount? How do you even talk about the hundreds of thousands of people who were, say, killed under terrorism as white were reclaiming the South after the end of Reconstruction? These are absolutely incalculable sums. Now, I do appreciate someone like Professor Darity who is trying to take, say, the 40 acres and a mule, give it a certain interest rate, flash forward and say, "Let's come up with some kind of dollar amount."

    But I do think, as with any form of financial compensation, that it's largely going to be symbolic. I do think that the symbolism is something that we have a very hard time wrestling with and grappling with. I wonder if one of the things about this moment now relative to electoral politics is actually about that symbolism. We know how political parties have used, for instance, the idea of the NASCAR dad or the silent majority or the welfare queen. I mean people speak in symbolic terms all the time when they're trying to mobilize different parts of the electorate.

    I wonder if one of the challenges here is that you almost have in your mind a kind of thin or vague image of the Black family that is simply going to get "the check in the mail" and that is not something that everybody can really get behind. It's not a rallying cry or a symbol that really helps to animate people in a 2020 or 2024 or what have you.

    BRIAN: Nathan, I certainly hope that we're not going to have to choose between getting the history right and financial compensation. I hope that we can have both of them together. But I'd love for you to elaborate on the genuine concern that sometimes stroking a check can make it seem like we've resolved the whole problem and we don't really have to talk about it any more.

    NATHAN: Yeah. I mean this is not even an abstract or philosophical debate. I mean when you look at the politics of the 1980s and '90s when people were asking for affirmative action, and it should be said for the record that affirmative action is in many ways an effort to redress history when it was first conceptualized. The opponents of affirmative action would say things like, "You guys got the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. You have nothing left to say. You have no other claims to make. There's no other argument one can make about inequality." I mean it literally was an argument about telling people to stay quiet because they got something from the government in major legislation.

    I have to imagine that anything that would be formally identified in a very ominous way as reparations would have, as one of the consequences, this same assumption that if you get something from us by way of redress or compensation, that then means in return we get your silence about the history, about further claims in the present day. That's always a very dangerous proposition to find oneself in because I think one of the most powerful relationships that African Americans have to the country is a claim on its history, is a claim to the founding, is a claim to the prosperity. It's a claim to the workings and the evolution of democracy, certainly cultural claims and political claims and economic claims all bound up together.

    There's a way in which I think people would be much more inclined if they could get some guarantee that Black folk would be quiet about the past in ways that don't fit a mainstream vision, that they would be very much inclined to just give a kind of token gesture and call it reparations in the meantime.

    BRIAN: So in that regard, it would look almost like a private legal settlement with nondisclosure act included.

    NATHAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don't know of anybody who's willing to sign onto something like that. I also want to say too, I mean this is something that I think Ed had mentioned that the housing issue in the 20th century ... and it's easier for that than maybe the slavery issue of the 19th century. But I do think there is ways that we could absolutely reverse engineer some of the most discriminatory practices of the 20th century and just simply say, "Look, we're going to concentrate resources in areas that are concentrated African American poverty and institutions that have historically moved against admitting people of African Americans into their educational institutions or employment institutions and the like."

    There are ways where we can concentrate and think through mass incarceration, evictions. I mean all of these inequalities are so concentrated and identifiable, public health outcomes. I mean you can give increased spending to areas that are suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure. Again, poverty and race certainly correlate, but there are ways to think about isolating the variables of race geographically that could be part of a reparations policy. But again, it would require a level of intentionality that would also then require building and moving the political apparatus through Congress necessarily to get it to do that.

    ED: As a historian, I have to be heartened by the fact that history doesn't really fade away in its significance. The things that we're talking about are not the things that are just most approximate to us in time, but things that are most foundational, slavery, Reconstruction, segregation. Those things are not just going to fade away with the passage of time it appears. Instead, they come back in new guises. So those of us who think about the past for a living have to be perversely encouraged that people are going to need to know the details. It actually mattered what 40 acres and a mule actually was. What did it mean for us to be able to have these conversations?

    It just shows us that there's always going to be the need for us to have a clearer eye to understanding of the history that got us to this place. That history in this case runs way back in American history.

    BRIAN: That's going to do it for us today. But you can keep the conversation going online. Let us know what you thought of the episode or ask us your questions about history. You'll find us at Or send an email to We're also on Facebook and Twitter @backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don't be a stranger.

    Special thanks this week to the Johns Hopkins Studios in Baltimore.

    NATHAN: BackStory is produced at Virginia Humanities. Major support is provided by an anonymous donor, The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Johns Hopkins University, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this podcast do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

    Additional support is provided by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment.

    SPEAKER 12: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Ed Ayers is professor of the humanities and president emeritus of the University of Richmond. Joanne Freeman is professor of history and American studies at Yale University. Nathan Connolly is the Herbert Baxter Adams Associate Professor of History at the Johns Hopkins University.

    BackStory was created by Andrew Windham for Virginia Humanities.

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