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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.

Brian Balogh: 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 Connolly: 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 Ayers: 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 Balogh: We’ll also discuss how slavery spawned a racial wealth gap that shapes the lives of millions of Americans today.

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

Mary Frances B.: 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 Connolly: Did you see anything in her early life or young adulthood that might have shaped her activism?

Mary Frances B.: 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.