THIRD IN A SERIES.
“We, the jury, in the above-entitled cause,” the verdict read, “do ﬁnd for the plaintiff and assess her damages … at Two thousand ﬁve hundred dollars $2,500.00.”
The year was 1878. Inevitably, the jurors, judge and attorneys were all European Americans. However, the plaintiff was an African American woman, Henrietta Wood, who had sued for slavery reparations and was awarded today’s equivalent of $65,000.
Like Wood, untold numbers of enslaved Africans, freed by President Abraham Lincoln’s Proclamation Declaration effective Jan. 1, 1863, were still denied their freedom. Wood was kept enslaved and, after she was ﬁnally freed, she had little choice but to contract to work for her former owner for three more years for $10 a month. She was not paid and she sued him for $20,000 in lost wages, USA Today’s Nicole Carroll recounted on June 19, 2020.
Wood lost but sued in federal court and accepted the reduced amount which “remains the largest known sum ever awarded by a US court in restitution for slavery,” Rice University professor W. Caleb McDaniel wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book about Wood’s case, “Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution.”
The lawsuit was “about more than Wood alone. It was about what former slaves were owed … as well about the real differences restitution could make,” The Washington Post’s Sydney Trent wrote on Feb. 24.
More than 130 years later, Deadria Farmer-Paellman, Andre Carrington and Mary Lucey Madison, ﬁled separate lawsuits in 2002 in Brooklyn against several corporations for reparations, accusing them of proﬁting from the trans-Atlantic slave trade. ”My grandfather always talked about the 40 acres and a mule we were never given,” Farmer-Paellman, the lead plaintiff, said. The lawsuits were ﬁled “in behalf of all living descendants of slaves in this country,” The New York Times reported.
The lawsuits were consolidated into one class-action case, which was dismissed but then amended to charge “intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, civil rights violations due to the denial of property rights and consumer fraud,” Human Rights Watch noted. The amended complaint was dismissed, in July 2005, as a “political question” outside the court’s jurisdiction. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take it up in October 2007.
If the reparations were a “political question,” the late Rep. John Conyers Jr., DMich., was years ahead of the courts. In 1989, Conyers introduced House Resolution 40 (HR 40), the “Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans Act,” in the House, where it stalled. Conyers re-introduced HR 40 at every session of Congress for 28 years, until he retired. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, took over, introducing the bill every session thereafter, until it gained some traction last year during the outrage over police brutality and systemic racism. Fifty Democrats and several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates supported it and HR 40 made it to the Judiciary Committee.
Meanwhile, reparations supporters were dismayed at the hands-off attitude of Barack Obama, who, as the ﬁrst African American president, was probably expected to champion their cause. Obama not only said paying reparations would be “impractical” but, according to The New York Times, he also refused to use executive action to create the commission.
The Judiciary Committee approved HR 40 on April 14, on party lines, The Washington Post reported. The absence of Republican support for even setting up a study commission did not bode well for the bill but Jackson Lee described the approval as a ﬁrst step on a “path to restorative justice.” She hoped the full House would vote on it by mid-year. However, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, DMaryland, told reporters that it was unlikely to happen any time soon. Four months later, it has still not come up for a full House vote. Hoyer also said he hoped President Joe Biden, who had spoken favorably about reparations during the 2020 campaign, would create the commission if Congress failed to do so. That, too, is very unlikely, at least in the near future. Biden is unlikely to rock the bipartisan boat he is trying to put to the political sea.
Biden is dealing with infrastructure matters, the COVID-19 delta surge and immigration. He also faces intense demands from African Americans, who helped put him in ofﬁce, to act on policing reform and voter suppression, neither of which will garner any signiﬁcant Republican support. And Republicans will never vote for anything remotely touching on reparations; they are already uniﬁed in opposing even the study of slavery in schools. Reparations are, therefore, unlikely to be a Biden priority, at least not before the 2022 mid-term election.
Of course, Democrats could abolish the Senate ﬁlibuster, clearing the way for passage of voting rights, policing reform, the reparations study commission bills and other measures, but that would mean an end to trying to play footsies with Republicans. In fact, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Simena of Arizona oppose ending the ﬁlibuster which requires 60 votes for a bill to advance in the Senate which is currently split 50-50 -and they are Democrats.
So, policing reform, voting rights and reparations, the issues most important now to African Americans, will likely remain on the Congressional backburner. Biden could be seeking to establish himself as a reformer in the mold of Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Franklin Roosevelt, while demonstrating to the Republican rank-and-ﬁle that while their party offers them culture warfare and an alternative reality, he will repair their bridges and roads and lift them out of poverty. In that way, he is probably hoping to get them to pressure their party to end its obstructionism. But Biden would do well to recall Oliver Cromwell’s speech to his troops at the battle of Edgehill in 1642: “Put your trust in God, my boys, but keep your powder dry.”