Legacy of Slavery: A New Approach to Reparations
(Chapter 7 in the forthcoming Building an Architecture of Peacebuilding in the United States. be
Rowman & Littlefield in 2020)
I arrived at the University of Baltimore (UB) with a scholarship portfolio that focused on
transitional justice, a field that now encapsulates the post-conflict mechanisms focusing on
accountability for perpetrators, healing for victims, and relevant institutional reforms.
predominantly African American masters students learned about my research, they asked about
slavery in the United States. At the time I did not know. I could tell them that those working in
transitional justice have long engaged with issues around compensation, prosecution of
perpetrators, transparency regarding the atrocities committed, apology, memorialization,
institutional reform, and victim services. Even though the field has expanded to include this wide
array of responses, the post-World War II Nuremberg Trials are cited as the birthplace of the
The prosecution of those thought responsible for World War II, the Marshall Plan though
which the victors rebuilt a devastated Europe, as well as services for those who suffered in the
Holocaust launched a new discourse for how the western world responds in the aftermath of
Transitional justice is now a global phenomenon, but the students correctly observed
noticed that responses to U.S. slavery lagged behind. Forms of transitional justice have spread
prominently throughout Europe, Latin and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, and even to
Canada and the United States. Today, post-conflict justice and amends making has become such
an accepted global discourse that Indonesia, for example, added new words to its national
language. I noticed this during my research in Yogyakarta, Indonesia where I studied the 1965
genocide. In a language in which cognates with English are rare, these words stand out.
Reparations is reparasi; compensation is kompensasi, transparency is transparansi, and
democracy is demokrasi. While most scholars and practitioners focus on largely non-U.S.
iterations of transitional justice, as early as 1951, U.S. Civil Rights leaders including W.E.B
DuBois, brought a petition of over 200-pages to the United Nations alleging that the United
States was responsible for numerous genocidal abuses related to the period of slavery and the
years following its prohibition. The claims fell on deaf ears, until recently. Democratic
candidates, vying for black votes, have resurrected the conversation. Like many African
Americans, much of Baltimore’s population struggles with the legacies of slavery.
Baltimore’s on-going tragedies continue to make headlines, many of these problems have
racial legacies of the past. The Baltimore Sun hosts a web page dedicated to homicides through
which visitors can easily search the homicides by time frame, gender, cause of death, race and
zip code. A corresponding map includes the associated names, ages, and addresses of the
victims. In 2018, 308 individuals were murdered, 240 of whom were black. This was down only
slightly from 342 in 2017.
In 2017, the Baltimore City Health Department reported 692 opioid-
related deaths, making Baltimore City host to the, “highest overdoes fatality rate of any city in
the United States.”
Incarceration rates are also high for African Americans. According to the
NAACP, in 2014, African Americans were still, “incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of
A flutter of literature about mass incarceration of African Americans emerged in the
2000s, including Michelle Alexander’s seminal 2010 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass
Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.
Consistent with the mass incarceration described in
this literature, some UB students have been in jail and many others know people who are or have
been. Responding to the post-carceral difficulties faced by some students, the university’s
Second Chance College Program educates those currently incarcerated and helps them continue
their education upon release.
Fears of police brutality also hang heavy. One student had too many examples of police
brutality throughout the United States to fit into her 15-minute presentation. Former prosecutor
turned Georgetown law professor Paul Butler, and author of Choke Hold spoke to students about
the policing of black men.
A number of UB students grew up being policed this way. Kolby
recalled a day that teachers let students out early after exams. Seeing him outside during school
hours, police searched him and threw him to the ground. Too many have similar stories. In 2015,
Freddie Carlos Gray, Jr. died in police custody at age twenty-five. Hundreds protested outside
the Baltimore Police Department. Protests continued and eventually turned violent as police
faced off with the community. African American male students and women raising African
American boys express their on-going fears about finding themselves victims of police brutality.
To this we add the not unrelated issue of access to services and health crises in the
African American community. Inequalities remain not only in healthcare, but also in the lived
experience of health and sickness. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention produced a
report for 2007-2013, showing, “babies born to well educated, middle-class black mothers are
more likely to die before their first birthday than babies born to poor white mothers with less
than a high school education.”
In April 2018, Linda Villarosa’s article in The New York Times,
“Why America’s Black Mothers and Babies Are in a Life-or-Death Crisis,” draws on this report
to show that these women die not just from a lack of access to healthcare, but from the stress of
being black in a racist society.
To this, add the stress and health effects of racism.
Health crises for young people have
become normalized. For those in good health, a number miss school because someone in their
family has collapsed, gone missing, or died. Being a healthy, first-generation college student
often leaves people without mentors in their community or pressures from their family to achieve
financial success. While linking these issues to slavery is challenging, linking them to Jim Crow
era policies is not. Zoning laws, access to quality education, and on-going racism in policy and
practice go a long way toward explaining how this community has failed to flourish.
Overshadowed, though intertwined with these daily challenges, are the more symbolic
battles over race and history. Just weeks after moving into my apartment located across the street
from the university’s campus, the contractors hired by Baltimore mayor Catherine E. Pugh and
city officials snuck out in the middle of the night to remove Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger
B. Taney’s statue. Taney’s 1857 pro-slavery vote on the Dred Scott case made him an icon for
white nationalists who commissioned this and similar statues. Crews also removed a Taney
statue in front of the State House in Annapolis, Maryland. This shift reflects an increase in voice,
if not yet in experience.
This was small step forward for African Americans who have long watched the suffering
of others acknowledged, especially Holocaust victims and descendants. Many cannot help but
feel left out. With no satisfying answers to their questions about why Jews and why not African
Americans, I began researching. What started as an individual inquiry, quickly became a
collective one. Soon the discussions spilled outside of class began we began recommending
sources to one another and having in depth conversations at the library on Sundays. Exploring
ideas together and appreciating the knowledge and life experience each brings to the discussion
transformed this research into praxis.
This article is the product of this new research and conversations, offering a summary of
the transitional justice mechanisms employed in the United States regarding slavery nationally
and then within universities. The paper concludes with a proposal to address the legacies of
slavery. While irreparable harm does not lend itself to reparation, this does not excuse us from
the need to engage in this work.
Ta-Nehisi Coates advises his black son to engage in
impossible work for one’s own sanity amidst a mad world.
Each mass atrocity and the nature
of its legacy brings forth different needs. There is no uniform response that suits every context.
Given the on-going challenges and generations of inequity faced by African Americans, this
article also proposes that the United States provide three generations of descendants of enslaved
persons access to free higher education, beginning first with state schools and collegiate
members of the organization, Universities Studying Slavery.
Transitional Justice and U.S. Slavery
Before exploring this controversial proposition of free higher education, first let me
present an overview of the transitional justice regarding slavery in United States, focusing on
universities, a common site of conversation and contestation. The legacies of slavery in the
present go beyond the confines of the prison to consider how the inherited trauma and long-
running systems of inequality serve as a kind of systemic incarceration, one that is much harder
to see. U.S. Presidents have not totally been blind to how the history of slavery affects present-
day problems. In 2003, while visiting a former slaver port in Senegal, President George W. Bush
statement said, “The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or segregation. And
many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experiences of other
The following considers what has been done to tend to these roots.
Apologies for massive human rights violations may seem like the easiest place to start. In
a world with much moral ambiguity, slavery and genocide seem like two of the few clear-cut
areas of moral clarity. Apologies matter. Margaret Walker aptly notes that, “nothing anyone does
to relieve a harmed person’s pain or suffering, stress, anger, resentment or indignation or outrage
will count as “making amends” without an acceptance of responsibility as the reason for the
Apologies imply responsibility, a responsibility that few countries, entities, or
individuals want to accept because with it comes the expectation of doing something to repair the
harm: compensation or reparations. Apologies can be a political liability when they attach moral
responsibility to those still in power or suggest financial payments are forthcoming.
Apologies, when given, are critiqued for being incomplete or insincere. Individuals differ
regarding what constitutes a “real” apology. Verdeja outlines the three components required of
formal apologies: 1) a verbal act expressing sorrow or regret to victims and society at large, 2)
restitution of some form, and 3) a promise that such acts will never reoccur.
Goffman offered a
model of apology that focused less on responsibility and more on the expression of humiliation
or remorse, a demonstration that the guilty party now knows what a proper response would be,
Apologies can serve as a way to assuage guilt or to garner public support. For this reason,
victim groups have also critiqued apologies for a lack of sincerity and being used for strategic
aims. My research on the apologies issued by the French National Railways (SNCF) for its role
in the Holocaust demonstrates this conundrum (Federman 2017). The company made its first
apology in the United States where survivor groups impeded the company’s efforts to bid for rail
contracts. When the company apologized, a group critiqued the company for doing so just to win
local contracts. Told to go back and apologize first in France where the incidents occurred,
SNCF Chairman Guillaume Pepy expressed his regrets at a commemorative ceremony in 2011.
This apology, meaningful to some, was seen by some as falling short of a real apology. Others
felt that an apology without compensation is meaningless. In contrast, the “real” apology given
by French President Jacques Chirac, in 1995, coincided with a number of national compensation
programs. Apologies are fraught – while a seemingly an obvious response to egregious crimes
governments and other entities (companies, etc.) fear them because they fear that financial
demands will soon follow. They are also fraught because even if made with great care, they can
be rejected and critiqued. In spite of these challenges, there was a brief era during which many
apologies circulated around the globe.
Era of Apologies
These critiques of apologies emerged during the 1990s, an era of global apologies. In
1995, Elizabeth II apologized to the Maori in New Zealand, for the effects of colonialism. In
1997, Tony Blair apologized for Britain’s cold shoulder during Ireland’s potato famine in the
mid-1800s. These apologies seem to culminate in Australia’s 1998 institution of “National Sorry
Day,” created to acknowledge a history of harms to aboriginal peoples. The Canadian
government apologized in 1998 for removing indigenous children from their homes and placing
them in residential schools.
American presidents have also engaged with apologies. U.S. President Ronald Reagan
began making amends with Japanese Americans as early as 1988 by initiating a program that
would offer compensation checks of $20,000 to victims of forced relocation and internment
during World War Two. The program was implemented by the Clinton administration in 1993,
during which President Bill Clinton wrote the official apology that was sent with the checks. He
wrote: “Over fifty years ago, the United States government unjustly interned, evacuated, or
relocated you and many other Japanese Americans. Today, on behalf of your fellow Americans, I
offer a sincere apology to you….”
Pope John Paul II capped the decade of apology in 2000
with his apology for numerous sins of the Church, including the crusades.
Debates over apologies still emerge from time to time, but rarely are they made as
unequivocally as they were in the 1990s. In May 2016, President Obama, during the first ever
visit of a U.S. President to Hiroshima, considered apologizing for the U.S. deposition of the
atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but decided against it. He focused on the hard
choices that leaders must make during times of war.
As recently as September 2018, French
President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged the torture used by the French military during the
Algerian war for independence. After naming France’s behavior during the war as a “crime
against humanity,” he faced resistance. He then said France should not focus on “neither denial
nor repentance” for the country’s colonial era.
In this potpourri of global apologies, slavery in the United States seems like a strange
omission. The United States had apologized to the Japanese Americans for their forced
internment. The United States also issued apologies to native Hawaiians for the usurpation of
their sovereignty and to African Americans who were infected with syphilis to study the disease.
But no apology has yet been issued by a U.S. President on American soil for slavery. Most
apologies related to slavery have been said within Africa. In 1998, during a trip in Africa,
President Bill Clinton made an apology related to slavery, but did not bring that apology home to
the United States. Benin President Mathieu Kérékou’s led an effective global “apology tour” for
slavery in the late 1990s. Perhaps because of its more Christian religious overtones, a religion
that gave us the discourse of forgiveness and repentance, the apology received less critique than
those issued by Ghana. Theodore Johnson accuses the Ghanaian apologies for the country’s role
in the slave trade were used to attract African Americans to the country.
Apology for Slavery in the United States
President Bill Clinton considered issuing an apology to African Americans in the late
1990s, but never officially did so, opting instead to promote dialogues on race. Representative
Steve Cohen, a democrat from Tennessee, was tired of waiting for President Clinton to move
ahead. In 2008, he initiated two congressional resolutions that requested an apology for slavery.
The bill passed in the Senate unamended in 2008. House Resolution 194 did pass and in July
2008 the House of Representatives issued an apology.
Representative Cohen made the apology to black Americans both for slavery and for the
Jim Crow era.
The apology did seem to leave a lasting imprint, perhaps because Cohen made
his statement in the House of Representatives to a predominantly white audience, trusting news
outlets to carry the message outward. Because so many African Americans still live in the
margins (in poverty, prison, or simply out of earshot of Congress), reaching people requires
traveling to those margins. This apology may need to be made repeatedly, locally and, of course,
to black people directly. An “apology tour” may be required. The indelible impression left by
French President Jacques Chirac’s beloved 1995 apology for Jewish deportations in France
during the war, was facilitated in part by the apology’s high visibility, the relatively small French
Jewish community, and the access this community has to public discourse. Apologies are hard to
do and distribute well.
Cohen’s position in the House of Representatives lacked the necessary stature. To
represent a national apology, such an apology like needs to come from the president. Four
months after he issued the apology, the nation elected President Barack Obama. Had they waited
for President Obama to take office the apology may have unfolded differently. But perhaps not.
President Obama never apologized for slavery. The irony of an African American having to
apologize for the history of slavery perhaps sat too awkwardly. Even though born to a Kenyan
father and a white mother, the visual mismatch may have been too great. Or perhaps, he could
have found a way to make the most eloquent and memorable speech; we will never know.
Regardless, any debate about apology inevitably leads to contentious conversations about
Though the issue of reparations remains contentious and fraught, the subject has
reemerged in various forms throughout the country. The first to file a petition for compensation
came as early as 1783, when Belinda Sutton – enslaved under the Royall family, petitioned the
Massachusetts General Court. In the petition, she told her story and requested compensation. Not
much has transpired since Ms. Sutton’s petition. The most referenced contemporary statement
regarding slavery reparations was made by Ta-Nehisi Coates, author, activists and a national
correspondent for The Atlantic.
In “The Case for Reparations” Coates outlines his case by
telling a story about Clyde Ross, born in 1923 in Mississippi. Through this family’s history he
points to various ways, through the Jim Crow era to the present, that African Americans were
disenfranchised and re-disenfranchised whenever they began to achieve a modicum of success.
At the Harvard University conference on “Universities and Slavery,” Coates told participants, “I
don’t know how you conduct research that says your very existence is rooted in a great crime,
and you just say, at best, ‘Sorry,’ and walk away...It’s very important to use that word
[reparations] to acknowledge that something was done.”
In 2016, The New York Times Editorial Board explored why the reparations movement for
slavery lacks traction in the United States.
The first has to do with the passage of time. A
dominant sentiment in the United States is that these events occurred just too long ago to
address. The second, related to the first, is that difficulty of distinguishing valid claims from
fraudulent claims. The passage of time claim might hold water if such events occurred thousands
of years ago; if, perhaps, we saw Jews trying to claim compensation for slavery in Egypt. But the
1800s are not so long ago. There are other groups who have made claims for not so much more
recent crimes. The Armenians, for example, have made great strides in gaining recognition for
the genocide of their people 1915-17. Through persistent activist efforts, the Herero and
Namaqua genocide between 1904 and 1908, during which the German Empire sought to
exterminate the Ovaherero and the Nama, is gaining recognition as the twentieth century’s first
Even if the argument can be successfully made that the enslavement of Africans in
the United States was a form of cultural genocide, the Genocide Convention of 1948 was not
designed to respond to claims for this type of destruction.
The United States government advanced some legislation to explore the complexity of
reparations. This House bill, H.R.40 - Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals
for African Americans Act115th Congress (2017-2018), sought to consider a proposed
compensation scenario for the historical period 1619-1856. However, this bill can be viewed as
political and conceptual because it does not provide details about the amount and eligibility to
acquire reparations. Craemer estimates that the value of U.S. slave labor in 2009 currency would
range between $5.9 and $14.2 trillion.
These and earlier estimates, however, only focus on the
value of enslaved persons in economic terms, compensation for time served. The calculations
that resulted in these and related estimates fail to address the suffering inflicted by enslavement,
including both the physical and emotional torture. These estimates fail to include the unlived life,
the pain of having one’s child ripped away. These estimates treat slavery as an unpaid bill,
ignoring the moral and spiritual catastrophe of the practice. For this reason, Roy Brooks argues
for a conversation about racial reconciliation and inequity. His recent book focuses on the moral
obligations that slavery created.
This has the secondary effect of moving the focus back on to
the perpetrating individuals and racist ideologies, not just on the victims. Inequity must be
addressed as well as losses.
In Charlottesville, Virginia legislators tried making some small efforts to address
inequities and slavery simultaneously. In 2017, amidst debates about the removal of the Robert
E. Lee statue, Wes Bellamy, vice-mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia proposed and passed a $4
million “equity” package that contributed to the local African American community through
commemoration, housing redevelopment, GED scholarships, and some other funds for those in
dire poverty. While the package was approved to help stave off the statute removal and was
heavily weighted towards heritage sites versus social inequity, the proposal has helped bring the
question of reparations back to the legislative table.
Because the issue of compensation remains so fraught, more attention has been paid to
increasing transparency and commemoration. Transparency has become a hallmark in the
aftermath of massive human rights violations. The amount of work needed depends on the
context. Each country has a different relationship with the atrocities of its past and different
amounts of data available to help people fill in the pieces. During my visit to the Museum of
Communist Treachery in Jakarta, I witnessed how the museum justifies the country’s 1965
genocide. Through both miniature and life-sized dioramas, this national museum guides visitors
through a false narrative, claiming that alleged “communists” tried to destroy the country. The
activists I met in Bali were compelled make genocide visible in clandestine ways, for fear of
Regarding slavery, the United States seems comparatively like an open book. As early as
1852, the antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, became the best-
selling novel of the 19th Century. Stories proliferated throughout the next century and by the
close of the 20th Century, mass media brought the horrors of slavery into almost every American
household. But even if every story were to be written, transparency alone cannot create the kind
of healing and change sought by descendants carrying the weight of their ancestors’ suffering.
The global proliferation of truth and reconciliation commissions aims to do this work.
While best known through the South African commission, they have now spread worldwide. The
first United States commission, however, was created in 2004, the twentieth anniversary of the
Greensboro massacre. This event, which took place in 1979, began as a protest of injustice and
the existence of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). KKK members and supporters arrived at the protest
and killed five of the protestors. The commission, which focused more on “truth” than
“reconciliation,” produced a report which condemned not only the KKK and the American Nazi
party, but also the Greensboro police. In 2013, the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth
and Reconciliation Commission focused more on reconciliation, addressing the Wabanaki
children whom the state tore from their families and placed into child welfare. But another kind
of transparency forum has emerged related to racial inequalities. The Truth-Telling Project
launched in 2015 in response to the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri
continues to make visible various forms of “deep seated institutional racism” and promote
healing and solidarity.
Coming to the Table brings together descendants of slaves and slave
owners both for individual healing and to take collective action.
The Civil Rights and
Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ) at Northeastern University School of Law, investigates
historical racially motivated murders in the South.
They use this research to help create genuine
reconciliation for racial violence. To reach the wider public, however, transparency and
reconciliation among involved parties is not the same as visibility. Those uninterested in these
issues can simply avoid these commissions, their related grassroots efforts, and related
documentaries. Transparency, therefore, often goes hand in hand with commemoration and
What do prominent markers and memorials highlight regarding the nation’s history of
slavery? In 2003, five years prior to the Congressional proposal for an apology for slavery and to
the establishment of a commission on the question of reparations, a proposal circulated in the
U.S. government for a National Slave Memorial. Known as the National Slave Memorial Act, the
proposal died. Congress turned its attention to and eventually supported what became the
National Museum of African American History and Culture. The addition of this museum to the
National Mall in Washington D.C. serves as both a memorial and a museum. The museum also
illuminates the stark contrast between the neighboring Holocaust and Native American museums.
These museums represent peoples who have succeeded in making claims, in the form of
financial compensation, land restitution, or other services. Despite the defeat of the National
Slave Memorial Act, responses to slavery remain oriented toward memorials.
This has been a slow move since the 1980s, when tourists visiting the home and
plantations of America’s Founding Fathers started to see markers on slave graveyards.
Increasingly, slaves’ lodgings are being reconstructed. In the early 1990s, the Amistad memorial
was completed in New Haven, Connecticut commemorating both the 53 Africans’ who attempted
mutiny aboard the La Amistad and the Supreme Court’s 1841 ruling that these individuals acted
The African Burial Ground National Monument in Lower Manhattan, New
York City commemorates the 10,000-20,000 mostly enslaved Africans buried there.
Symbolically important, commemoration is costly and some wonder whether this money would
not be better spent helping people in need today. The National Museum of African American
History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington D.C., cost an estimated $500 million.
seems to be a period of memorial removal as much as a period of memorial construction. In
recent years, statues (many erected during a period of white nationalism in the early 1900s)
found themselves dismounted. Memorials in New Orleans, Baltimore, and Charlottesville came
down. High schools and colleges throughout the United States have also removed statutes,
renaming buildings, and even changing mascots.
Universities and Slavery
Universities remain on-going sites of exploration and contestation regarding the legacies
of slavery. In 2019, Glasgow University offered to pay 20 million pounds when its ties to slavery
became clear. The University decided to use the money to launch an academic center to study the
ties between Scotland and the West Indies.
Clark and Fine consider universities a logical site
for grappling with historical connections to slavery; as “museums of ideas” offering a variety of
relevant research methods, they are well poised to do this work.
Unlike corporations and even
more than governments, universities acknowledge their purpose as closely related to and
building upon the past. Students also are invited to be active, vocal members of the intellectual
community even at the expense of the institution’s reputation; but the same cannot be said about
Embarrass your employer, internally or externally, and expect to be fired. At a
university, speak boldly about the school’s tarnished history and you might receive a fellowship.
Craig Steven Wilder reviews the slavery ties of Harvard, Yale, Brown, Princeton,
Rutgers, Williams College, the University of North Carolina, and others. Brown University
launched one of the deepest institutional inquiries.
University President Ruth Simmons, the
first African American to lead an Ivy League university, appointed a committee in 2003 to
investigate the institution’s connection to slavery. Debates on campus were already smoldering
when she took office and she knew, as did other Ivies, that this renewed interest in institutional
connections to slavery could plausibly find land the university in court facing plaintiffs
demanding reparations. In this context, On March 18, 2004, Brown held a symposium entitled,
“Unearthing the Past: Brown University, the Brown Family, and the Rhode Island Slave Trade.”
The final report, presented in 2007, detailed the Brown family’s intricate connection with the
slave trade prior to 1807 when the North prohibited slavery. The Brown Committee report then
grappled with what to do about this sordid history. President Simmons ensured that the school
hosted numerous dialogues and conferences about the findings and their possible implications for
While Brown University’s study and on-going campus dialogues became a benchmark
for other schools, the university’s efforts faced critique. The committee reported the following,
As innumerable letters sent to the steering committee made clear, many Americans reflect,
indeed resent, the suggestion that they bear some responsibility for actions in which they
took no part, actions that may have occurred before they were born. The very notion collides
not only with deeply engrained beliefs about individual responsibility, but also with
quintessentially American ideas about historical transcendence, the capacity and fundamental
right of human beings to shake off the dead hand of the past and create their lives anew.
This commentary suggests the awkward fit between transnational transitional justice discourse
that calls for accountability and amends-making, and the American ethos of pulling oneself up by
the bootstraps and moving forward. This tension will continue to make slavery-related amends-
making contentious. In spite of these critiques, the response to Brown University’s efforts was
overall quite positive.
When Fine and Clarke compared Brown University’s slavery inquiry to research
conducted at University of Alabama, they found stark differences.
At the University of
Alabama, Harvard trained law professor Alfred Brophy conducted independent research on the
school’s connection to slavery. Faculty, alumni and community members accused Brophy of
conducting this research for self-aggrandizement. Some storied him as a Northerner coming
down, not to join this Southern community, but to mock its ignorance. Unlike Brown University,
the findings sparked no campus dialogues about the legacies of slavery in Alabama today and
how that history might affect African American students at the University. It is important to note
that Brophy conducted his research independently and not as part of a university initiative.
Other universities advanced their inquiries and, while critiqued, overall received more
accolades. In 2017, Harvard University hosted a conference entitled, “Universities and Slavery,”
inviting primarily history professors, some international university administrators, and activist
Ta-Nehisi Coates to speak on the issue.
Harvard’s President Drew Gilpin Faust said at the
conference that, “Harvard was directly complicit in slavery from the College’s earliest days, in
the 17th century, until the system of bondage ended in Massachusetts, in 1783.” The school
installed a plaque commemorating four enslaved persons who worked at the Wadsworth
The university hosts an in-depth website with a “slavery map”, that offers a virtual
walking tour of the campus. Website visitors hear from students and faculty about important sites
of debate and contestation.
There now resides a plaque in front of the Harvard Law School
which reads, “In honor of the enslaved whose labor created the wealth that made possible the
founding of Harvard Law School. May we pursue the highest ideals of law and justice in their
More than markers, these plaques become active sites for commemoration and mourning.
A group of us who participated in a restorative justice for racial healing workshop at the Harvard
Divinity School walked in silence through the law school courtyard and gathered around the
memorial. Melissa Wood Bartholomew, a racial justice fellow at the school, led us in a libations
ceremony during which we called out the names of the known and unknown who suffered under
this oppression. After prayers and moments of silence, the group walked back to the workshop
University of Virginia president, Teresa A. Sullivan, established a commission dedicated
to the research of and engagement with her university’s historic ties to slavery. The commission’s
report was published in 2018 and memorialization, preservation, scholarships and on-going
research remain a priority.
The commission even requested that the University of Virginia serve
as the headquarters for Universities Studying Slavery (USS) a consortium of thirty-seven
institutions dedicated to addressing their entanglements with slavery. Some members include
Columbia University, George Mason University, University of Mississippi, University of South
Carolina, and Georgetown University.
Universities and Reparations
Georgetown University has received national attention both for a new discovery linking
the institution to slavery and for the university’s unique response to this discovery. In 1838, the
prominent Jesuits running the institution sold 272 men, women, and children to cover university
costs during a fiscal crisis. The university had long been supported by Maryland plantations, but
the sale of these 272 individuals (at the price of $3 million in today’s currency) brought national
attention to the issue. In November 2016, student protests and other outcry convinced the
university to remove the names of the two college presidents responsible for the sale of these
slaves and promised to make a memorial honoring these individuals. The University also made
one of the few moves towards a form of compensation, offering preferential admission to
descendants of these individuals sold. Alumnus Richard Cellini hired eight genealogists to
identify the individuals sold and to locate their descendants. This became the Georgetown
Memory Project, a private organization that continues this search and connects them with the
university to see if applicants may receive preferential admission.
The University received positive press for this generous offer and is rethinking how this
this “gift” might play out. When the program launched, preferential admission came without
tuition remission. As of 2019, the average Georgetown undergraduate without financial aid will
have paid over $280,000 for their four years of tuition, room, and board. In the United States
student loans cannot be refinanced or forgiven in the face of bankruptcy and black students
struggle to repay these loans more than their white counterparts. In 2016, Brookings Institute
reported that, “Four years after graduation, black graduates have nearly $25,000 more student
loan debt than white graduates.”
The report also cites multiple studies confirming that,
“students of color are disproportionately burdened by student debt” and default three times more
often than their white counterparts. Furthermore, African Americans increasingly see their
undergraduate loans grow as the interest begins to compound. Fast-growing for-profit institutions
lure students back into debt, crippling them with more loans. The U.S. government sets the
interest rates and refuses to allow individuals to refinance these loans. The report concludes that,
while education can still provide many benefits, it is far riskier financially for blacks than it is for
whites. The report recommends modifying the loan amounts that are due after graduation in
accordance with salary. As of 2019, some conversations have begun within the Georgetown
community about the importance of scholarships. While the students have voted to increase their
tuition by around $12 to support the descendants of those enslaved, the goal is to use this money
to support the community where many of these descendants now reside.
Georgetown’s project is a form of affirmative action, the country’s preferred means of
addressing inequality, specifically the legacy of slavery. This program, however, does not
necessarily prepare first-generation college students for the experience. In a June 4, 1965 speech
at Howard University’s commencement ceremony, Lyndon B. Johnson acknowledged the
challenge of these transitions,
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate
him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and then say, ‘You are free to
compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely
fair…Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens
must have the ability to walk through those gates. This is the next and the more
profound stage of the battle for civil rights….
September of that same year, President Johnson signed Executive Order 1126, designed to
provide equal opportunity in the workplace. He, along with Martin Luther King Jr. and others,
laid the foundations for the affirmative action policies that exist today. Affirmative action, of
course, has expanded over time.
Johnson’s statement and subsequent Executive Order spoke to
the crippling effect of first slavery and then segregation. We see here how affirmative action
served as a form of transitional justice; a mechanism used to mitigate the harm to a people who
suffered mass atrocity. Its application to higher education and the challenge of college debt make
universities a relevant site for debate.
Universities remain a relevant site for yet another important historical crime. In June
1944, President Roosevelt created the G.I. Bill designed to help returning World War II veterans
start a new life. The bill aided with educational tuition, living expenses while in high school,
technical school, or an institution of higher learning. The bill also promised low interest loans for
those wanting to start a business or purchase a home. Though their military service the same, the
G.I. Bill did not support African American veterans to the same extent. Many banks refused to
issue the low interest loans to these returning soldiers. Because of segregation, many returning
soldiers of color seeking education were forced into poorly funded historically black colleges
and universities (HBCUs). These schools did not have the capacity to enroll the returning
students. As a result, many were turned away and few received this educational assistance.
Transitional justice mechanisms must address the needs created by the legacies of slavery in
policies and institutions. The responses need to fit the context: there is no formulaic way to heal
from or respond to mass atrocity.
Each context has its own contours and each atrocity requires
creativity and bold proposals. The following is one of these bold proposals.
A Reparations Proposal
Beyond financial reparations for slavery what form of compensation would be most
useful or appropriate?
Unlike Holocaust and Japanese internment compensation programs,
which gave money to survivors and immediate descendants, we are now several generations
removed from the origins and immediate experience of mass harm. What form of compensation
would best serve today’s descendants and who decides? Some University of Baltimore students
say that people deserve the money and ought to be able to spend it however they want, even if
that includes Michael Jordan high-tops and large screen televisions. Other students push back
saying that people lack the financial know-how to invest the money in ways that will truly help
them and their families. Infusions of money can also amplify problems. Canada’s Indian
Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, for example, which established a regime of financial
compensation for those who as children were abused in the schools, produced circumstances in
which not long after checks were issued, the money disappeared, drug and alcohol problems
proliferated, suicides continued, and the communities remained in deep distress.
be other ways to provide compensation that support lasting change.
Locating reparations (or compensation) discussions in the context of education makes
sense for several reasons. As discussed, universities are already a primary site of exploration and
contestation. Education has the power to uplift in ways that money alone cannot. As
anthropologist Arthur Kleinman observed, “the deepest form of colonization is colonization of
This is part of what must be overcome. Quality education can help undo
externalized and internalized racism if this education does not itself colonize.
In 1906, W.E.B
DuBois spoke at a Negro conference hosted by Hampton College where he said, “The aim of the
higher training of the college is power…”
He wanted to see more than technical training for the
people he called Negros. He wanted to see cultivation of abilities, character, and taste. Through
education, the formerly enslaved people, he believed, could best access and cultivate their natural
abilities and in so doing uplift themselves and others. Education ought to set people free, not
enslave by other means.
Because African Americans striving to acquire their degrees and uplift their families are
unfairly burdened by school loans, I support a bold proposal made during a book group
organized by George Mason University Professor Sara Cobb organized to discuss Ta-Nehisi
Coates’s, Between the World and Me. At some point during the conversation, Cobb put down her
glass, sunk back into the couch and said, “What we need is three generations of free higher
education for African Americans. That’s the only thing that can really transform this situation.”
She said this more than four years ago, but her words stayed with me and resonated ever more
strongly when I arrived at the University of Baltimore where I proposed a fellowship in this spirt.
Of course, this program is not without its challenges, but the Georgetown Memory Project
provides a model for how to begin.
The 2017 violence in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of the statues and a surge
in race-based hate crimes suggests that any reparations proposal could ignite much ire. There is
also the problem of on-going tacit racism. In spite of these and other challenges, radical harm
demands radical responses. Protests, new scholarships, and movements like Black Lives Matter
have made the legacies of slavery visible. Studies showing mass incarceration rates, police
brutality, poverty, lack of access to healthcare, and drug use tell us this is a community in crisis.
The United States, as a conglomerate of often troubled communities, benefits in no way from
this suffering. This era demands responses as radical as those catalyzed during the Civil Rights
Movement. Offering three generations of African Americans free higher education and providing
them with the preparation necessary to succeed in that education would be a meaningful response
and support the lasting changes education can promise. DuBois beat the drum for this education
during a remarkable career from 1906 through 1960. Since then, monuments, increased
transparency, and apologies have helped to place slavery more squarely in U.S. history and heal
some of the psychic wounds it has left, but only through the higher education of thousands of
African Americans can we help transform their experience in the United States. Why not give it a
ICTJ, “What is Transitional Justice?”
Teitel, “Transitional Justice Genealogy.”
At the close of 1948, jurist Raphael Lemkin added to the United Nations lexicon the word
“genocide”, a crime that became worthy of prevention and punishment. According to Lemkin,
because the notions of Self and Other resided first in the mind, a new discourse could help
protect the minds of individuals from participating in such atrocities in the future (See Irvin-
Erikson, “Genocide, the ‘Family of Mind’ and the Romantic Signature of Raphael Lemkin”). By
emphasizing the misdeeds, this work also aimed to prevent future outbreaks of violence.
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Wacquant, “From Slavery to Mass Incarceration: Rethinking the “Race Question” in the U.S.”;
Gottschalk, The Prison and the Gallows: The Politics of Mass Incarceration in America; Pettit
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